Posts in Category: Sermons

Matthew 14 Feeding the Hungry

Matthew 14:13-21

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras
Matthew 14:13-21
August 2, 2020

As people rush to stockpile supplies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, stores have placed restrictions on the purchase of essential goods like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, and medicines. The reality is that one person’s stockpiling can mean another person’s shortage. Hoarding and price gouging demonstrate the falling moral values in our society.

“With over 800 million people facing chronic undernourishment and a further 135 million people suffering crisis levels of hunger or worse... analysis shows that an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020 due to COVID-19.”[1] “David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), has labeled a ‘hunger pandemic’ alongside the health crisis.”[2]

 

The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels. It is God who feeds and saves. The crowd does not mind walking a long distance to hear Jesus. Five important verbs describe Jesus’ reaction to the crowd:

  1. Jesus had compassion on them. His heart was moved with pity as he saw people struggling with hunger. Jesus was surrounded by hungry people who needed his help. Despite being fatigued, Jesus makes himself available to them and heal their sickness.
  2. The second verb is “to heal.” Most of the illnesses in Jesus’ time were due to malnutrition. Food supplies and debt were frequent problems for many.

 

When it was evening, the disciples ask Jesus to send the crowd away to buy food. The critical line is Jesus' directive to the disciples, who wish the hungry crowd would go away. Jesus says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat" (v. 16). Jesus wants his disciples to take responsibility. So, the disciples give Jesus five loaves of bread and two fish.

 

  1. Jesus blesses the food. The third important verb is “to bless.” Jesus thanks God for the few foods he has. Learning to thank God for every little thing can enrich our lives and help us not to complain all the time. Jesus teaches us to be grateful for everything we have.

 

  1. The last two verbs describe Jesus’ reaction are breaking the loaves and giving them to the disciples to pass out to the crowd. The bread and fish just kept on coming. “It was certain only that the generosity of Jesus was streaming forth in superabundance.”[3] The three verbs: to bless, to break, and to give are used in our Holy Communion liturgy. The Eucharist feast is a symbol of God’s generosity, justice, and love. Breaking bread together is a communal and sacramental act that aims to transform us and make us a new creation in our relationship with God and our neighbor.

Traditionally speaking, the main point of feeding the 5000 is Jesus' ability to perform miracles. In fact, the main point is Jesus sympathizes with those who are hungry and put his sympathy into action. His sympathy demonstrates God's desire that food be distributed equitably. He cures and feeds the poor crowd. His reaction to the crowd recalls Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed and signifies that “The kingdom of heaven produces a plentiful harvest from the smallest of seeds.[4] From the little we have; we can bless abundantly. A commentator reflects on this story says:

The feeding stories are not about a miraculous multiplication of a few loaves and fish. Rather, they show how cooperation and fair distribution can bring abundance and harmony. There is enough for everyone if nobody grabs what they can without a thought for their neighbours. Jesus took the meager supply available and blessed, broke and distributed them. These three actions are at the heart of our Holy Communions... The ego, the false self that Jesus tells us must be put to death, is always concerned about scarcity, always therefore seeks to hoard, is afraid of the generosity of God, assumes that more is necessary before anything can be achieved. When I discover the underlying truth about who I really am the abundance of the present moment opens up. There is no need to wait until one condition or another is fulfilled. If, in trust, I use what is available to me at this moment then I am blessing, breaking and giving.[5]

 

I would like to end with a German song that I translated it into English. It is called Ich Glaube/ I Believe.

Ich glaube

I believe

Lyrics

Ich glaube, dass der Acker, den wir pflügen
Nur eine Weile uns gehört
Ich glaube nicht mehr an die alten Lügen
Er wär' auch nur ein Menschenleben wert
Ich glaube, dass den Hungernden zu speisen
Ihm besser dient als noch so guter Rat
Ich glaube, Mensch sein und es auch beweisen
Das ist viel nützlicher als jede Heldentat
Refrain

Ich glaube
Diese Welt müsste groß genug
Weit genug
Reich genug
Für uns alle sein

 

 

 

Ich glaube
Dieses Leben ist schön genug
Bunt genug
Grund genug
Sich daran zu erfreu'n

 

 

Ich glaube, dass man die erst fragen müsste
Mit deren Blut und Geld man Kriege führt
Ich glaube, dass man nichts vom Krieg mehr wüsste

 

 

Wenn wer ihn will, ihn auch am meisten spürt
Ich glaube, dass die Haut und ihre Farben
Den Wert nicht eines Menschen je bestimmt
Ich glaube, niemand brauchte mehr zu darben
Wenn der auch geben würd', der heut' nur nimmt

 

 

I believe that the field we are plowing

we own for a while

I no longer believe in the old lies

It would only be worth a human life

I believe to feed the hungry

Serves them better than good instruction

I believe to be human and to prove it

This is much more useful than any achievement

refrain

I believe

This world should be big enough

Far enough

Rich enough

For all of us

 

I believe

This life is beautiful enough

Colorful enough

land enough

Enjoy it

 

I believe that a person must ask first

With their blood and money, you can wage war

I don't think you know anything about the war anymore

 

If you want it, you can feel it most

I believe that the skin and its colors

do ever determined the value of a human being

I don't think anyone needed to starve anymore

When you give today, you would receive today

 

 

 

[1] Caroline Delgado and Jiayi Zhou, “The Impact of Covid-19 On Critical Global Food Supply Chains and Food Security,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, June 26, 2020, https://www.sipri.org/commentary/topical-backgrounder/2020/impact-covid-19-critical-global-food-supply-chains-and-food-security.

 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, Gospel of Matthew, The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. Kindle Edition, 2010), 189.

[4] Jennifer T. Kaalund, “Commentary On Matthew 14: 13-21,” Working Preacher, accessed July 28, 2020, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4513.

[5] “Abundance,” The Now New Testament, February 19, 2015, https://thenownewtestament.com/tag/feeding-the-five-thousand/.

Stereotyping

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras                       Stereotyping: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30        July 5, 2020
When I went to my seminary in Chicago, most of my colleagues, staff, and professors assumed that I was a Muslim or a Muslim who converted to Christianity. One of the staff tried to convert me to Christianity. They stereotyped that all Middle Easterners are Muslims, women must cover their heads, they do not eat pork, camel is their transportation, and of course, they are terrorists. I was stereotyped based on my ethnicity and gender. Those colleagues and staff made assumptions about me before they got to know me. Stereotyping is defined as “beliefs about the characteristics, attributes, and behaviors of members of certain groups.”[1] Stereotyping could lead to harassment and discriminatory situations at school, workplace, and church. How many times have you been misunderstood and characterized in ways that do not describe who you indeed are?
 
The scribes and Pharisees stereotyped Jesus Christ and John the Baptist. They saw John the Baptist living in the wilderness and eating what he found and abstaining from wine. John the Baptist did not fit their category of a normal person. He did not drink wine or attend banquets, so they thought that John was exceedingly weird and concluded that he must be possessed by a demon. In contrary to John, our Lord Jesus Christ accepted invitations to parties, ate, and drank wine. He accompanied the tax collectors and sinners to share the good news with them. The religious leaders criticized him and accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard. They stereotyped John and Jesus and did not see them for who they really were. They did not spend time with them and learn who they are. The religious leaders wanted nothing to do with them.
 
Jesus uses a Palestinian proverb and customs to illustrate the religious leaders' rejection of John and Jesus. “According to customs among children, boys invited their companions to dance at weddings, and girls sang laments at funerals and invited their friends to mourn.”[2] Using this proverb, Jesus explains that the religious leaders rejected John’s message of repentance and mourning and Jesus’ festive invitation. As a result of their rejection, our Lord Jesus Christ accuses them of lacking wisdom and understanding. If they had wisdom, they would have realized that Jesus Christ is the Son of Man and the coming Messiah. What was the problem of the scribes and the Pharisees?
The Pharisees and scribes rejected Jesus because they were conservative. They followed the law and their traditions, that is their interpretation of the law. In other words, they were legalists. They expected the Jews, including Jesus Christ and John the Baptist, to obey their traditions. The yoke is a symbol of the law and the Pharisees’ tradition.
In biblical and Jewish tradition, a yoke is often a metaphor for religious instruction. In some cases, the yoke represents the commandments of the Torah that define what it means to live in a covenant relationship with the Lord (see Acts 15:10; Gal 5:1). In others, it represents the counsel of divine Wisdom that guides men and women toward pious and prosperous living (see Sir 6:25; 51:26). Jesus probably had both traditions in mind when he spoke of “my yoke” (11:29-30).[3]
The Torah is associated with wisdom. Jesus compares himself with wisdom. His yoke that is his teaching is not heavy. The Pharisees burdened people with unimportant rules and issues. To those Jesus says, “28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
 Jesus becomes wisdom. His teaching is not a burden on us. On the contrary, his teaching brings rest to our souls. Jesus is not a harsh and strict teacher, but as a gentle teacher, he helps us to carry his teaching. Getting to know Jesus means obtaining wisdom.
In a world where the truth is often presented as debatable, and lies are painted as truth, we can become weary. The truth does matter. Truth is the beginning of wisdom. It is a starting point for us to live fruitful lives.”[4] Lacking truth or not trying to get to know our neighbor will create stereotypes. We become weary and burdened by our fears. Fears from our neighbor who looks different than us. Getting to know our neighbor will clear your mind of false assumptions and prejudice.
 
Jesus invites us to come to him with all our burdens, and he will take care of us. Applying his teaching to our lives helps us to welcome our neighbors as they are and without judgment. In this way, we become free from the burden of prejudice and stereotyping.
 

[1] Coutts, L. M., Gruman, J. A., & Schneider, F. W. (2017). Applied social psychology understanding and addressing social and practical problems (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
 
[2] Mitch, Curtis; Edward Sri. Gospel of Matthew, The (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) (pp. 159-160). Baker Academic. Kindle Edition.
 
[3] Mitch, Curtis; Edward Sri. Gospel of Matthew, The (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) (pp. 160-161). Baker Academic. Kindle Edition.
[4] Jennifer T. Kaalund, “Commentary On Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30,” Working Preacher, accessed July 4, 2020, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4502.

 

Genesis 22, Binding Isaac ‎

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras      Genesis 22, Binding Isaac           June 28, 2020

In the second century BCE, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV outlaws the Jewish temple worship, observance of Sabbaths and holy days, circumcision, and the keeping of Torah, and rules that the Jews who will not adopt Greek customs are to die (2 Macc 6:9). The second Maccabees, a Jewish book, chapters 6:7–7:42, lists stories of those who choose death over apostasy. The last martyr is the anonymous mother who dies after witnessing each of her seven sons cruelly tortured. In other Jewish traditions, the name of the mother is Hannah. The martyr family story opens with the arrest of the seven brothers and their mother, who are beaten to force them to eat pork (prohibited by Lev 11:7–8). Hannah encourages her seven sons to die rather than have them compromise their faith. King Antiochus dismembered the seven brothers' body and fried them. In another Jewish tradition, we learned that Hannah as her last son is about to die she tells him: ‘Go now, to Abraham your father, and tell him that I have bettered his instruction. He offered one child to God; I have offered seven.’[1]

 

God asks Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. In Scripture, God claims to abhor child sacrifice and considers it an abomination. God was testing Abraham, but Abraham was not aware of the test. The account of binding Isaac is a chilling story. We may think that God is cruel, and Abraham is an uncompassionate father. We may assume that Isaac is a stupid lad to accept to become a sacrifice for God. God spare Isaac by providing a ram to Abraham to use it instead of Isaac. After 4000 years, God did not spare God’s only son, Jesus Christ, from offering him as a sacrifice on the cross to save humanity (Rom 8:32).   Christ became a sin offering. The narrative of binding Isaac foreshadows the binding of Jesus Christ on the cross. Is God cruel to ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? Is God not cruel to offer God’s only son as a sacrifice on the cross?

 

The account of binding Isaac is different than the narrative of the crucifixion. The story of binding Isaac is not meant to be read like a modern novel that concerns with individual characters.[2] Instead, it is a morality tale written to instruct future generations to give up the dearest to them in obedience to God.[3] This is what Hannah did.

 

Modern readers may see Abraham as an uncompassionate father, but many Jewish and Christian commentators praise him for his loyalty to his faith values and God. God rewards him for his dedication. Commentators over centuries have admired Abraham for “‘putting aside of fatherly love’ that proved Abraham's greatness in this, his most difficult of tests.”[4]

 

The central theme of this story is that our faith worth dying for and sacrificing our children. Someone may say that the story of binding Isaac and the martyrdom of Hannah and her seven children happen only in Scripture. My answer is no.

 

 

On December 16, 1803, sixty Greek women decided to commit suicide with their children during the Souliote War with the Ottoman empire. To avoid capture, enslavement, humiliation, and forced conversion to Islam, the women threw their children off a steep cliff, and then they held hands and started singing and dancing, with the steps leading to the cliff where they jumped to their death one by one.[5] These 60 Greek martyrs believed that their faith in Jesus Christ worth sacrificing their children and themselves.

 

Our Lord Jesus advises us to be ready to offer the ultimate sacrifice for his namesake. We may lose our job, money, friendship, and beloved one for the sake of the Lord. Martyrdom is not the only sacrifice we offer to our Savior, but in all the little things, Jesus urges us to forgo for his namesake. Iraqi and Syrian Christians had to relinquish their homes and all their possessions and run away from ISIS to keep their faith. They see Jesus Christ as more valuable than all their possessions. I know some of you like golfing very much, but you forgo your favorite game to worship the Lord on Sunday. A person who gives money to help the poor is sacrificing having a comfortable life to follow the teaching of our Lord. Some of you have sacrificed in many ways because of your faith in Jesus Christ.

 

The account of binding Isaac is not about inspiring religious fanaticism, but about a story to teach a future generation how to be ready to sacrifice for their faith in God and the Torah. For Christians, this narrative teaches us to forgo the most important person or thing in our life for the sake of Christ Jesus.

 

Do you think our Lord Jesus worth sacrificing the dearest person you have for his namesake? I cannot answer this question for you. If your answer is no, I invite you to reflect on the reasons behind your answer.

 

[1] Sydney Nestel, “The Akeida: Questions of Sacrifice,” Reconstructing Judaism (blog), February 10, 2017, https://www.reconstructingjudaism.org/dvar-torah/akeida-questions-sacrifice.

 

[2] Ibid.

 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Dance of Zalongo,” Wikipedia, May 21, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dance_of_Zalongo.

Genesis 21

Traumatic biblical Stories

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras             Genesis 21                                        June 21, 2020

When you feel blue or face a challenge, you need support. What do you usually do to lift your spirits? What do you do when people lie about you, stab you in the back, or confuse your motives? What do you do when you see your loved one get sick or your children struggle in their lives? How can you thrive amid a global pandemic? You might read Scripture. What part of the Scripture will you read? We usually read Psalm 23, “the Lord is my shepherd.” Or Isaiah 43:2 “When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.”

Maybe you would read Matthew 6:25-26 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

These verses and many more like them make us feel good. How many of you would read the story of Christ’s crucifixion or story about Israel and Judea exile, or genocide in the book of Joel to be comforted or have hope for tomorrow? Church-going believers usually ignore biblical stories that include traumatic events. We do not dwell on these stories to help us to grow in faith. I have learned that these kinds of narratives point me at the resilience of the people of God. They teach me to hold on to my faith for the sake of Christ and to withstand trials. One of the stories that has taught me resilience is the story of an Egyptian slave woman, Hagar. Hagar is my heroine, not Sarah.

 

Hagar means “resident alien.” She was an African slave woman held in slavery by Sarah (Genesis 16:1). What a name. It seems that Sarah and Abraham did not bother to give her a real name. They were satisfied to call her “a stranger.” Many of you are familiar with her story. Sarah fails to bear a child to Abraham. She gives him her slave, Hagar, to provide him with a child. Sarah decides to have a child through a surrogate Hagar so that the child will be hers. That was the custom in their times. So, Hagar conceives and looks down on Sarah, which leads to Hagar’s expulsion from Abraham's household. God orders Hagar to go back to Sarah, which she does. Later she gives birth to Ishmael. Finally, Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac. Here, we reach today's reading from Genesis 21.

 

 

After Sarah has given birth to Isaac, she forced Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham leaves Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness with minimal provisions to face their fate alone. How cruel. Hagar sees her only son Ishmael dehydrated and close to death. She cries and weeps. God listens to her voice and saves her son.

 

Even though this story is painful and puzzling, we can empathize with Hagar’s anger, pain, and distress. Hagar takes everything she has to God. She brings her anger, emotions, and worries to God.

 

Hagar’s story and her relationship with Sarah and Abraham are as real as this world. Her story is the story of the relationship between free people and a slave woman. The racism that defines people based on their skin color is deeply rooted in our culture. We saw on the news the murder of George Floyd, a black man, at the hand of a white police officer. The result was demonstrations against police brutality and racism. Our city of Wausau participated in this demonstration. As God heard Hagar’s cry and saw her affliction, God is inviting us to listen to the voice of our disadvantaged sisters and brothers. God calls us to respect the minorities in our community. We are called to speak up for them and with them.

 

Hagar’s story is the story of a woman who is unable to protect her body from getting abused and used. Raped women, prostitutes, and battered women empathize with Hagar’s pain. Women and men who see their children go hungry or lying in hospital suffering can also empathize with Hagar. Hagar’s resilience and perseverance speaks to each one of us. Resilience is the ability to bounce back and the ability to keep going. “Real resilience is the process of coping with disruptive, stressful, or challenging life events in a way that provides the individual with additional protective and coping skills than prior to the disruption, that results from the event.”[1] (“Resiliency in Schools” 2003).

 

 

Hagar's resilience and perseverance to keep her faith sets an example for us how to live our faith. I am not talking about surviving tough trials. You build resilience when you learn and grow from trials. This is precisely what Hagar did.

It is good to seek comfort from comforting passages in Scripture. It is also essential to read the most challenging stories in the Bible because these stories teach us resilience.

Jesus says, “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38). He also says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Hagar’s cross was her slavery. She carried her cross despite her pain. She kept carrying her cross, and finally, God rewarded her.

The author of Genesis 21: 20-21 tells us that “God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.”

“Our faith can be a pillar we lean upon at moments when it can be hardest to find meaning and purpose from our lives.”[2] This faith helps you to be resilient in the face of challenges. Your faith assures you that our God is always on your side. As God was with Hagar, God, through the work of the Holy Spirit in you, will help you to be resilient and to grow in faith.

9:35-10:8 [9-23]

Becoming like the Lord Jesus Christ

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Matthew 9:35-10:8 [9-23]

June 14, 2020

 

Who does not want to be like Jesus Christ? He is the role model for a kind and compassionate leader. Our Lord possesses healing power and performs many miracles. He confronts hypocrite, religious leaders, without fear. Our Lord Jesus was executed on the cross, but he rose from the dead; and now he is seated at the right hand of God, the Father. All power and dominions are under his feet. He also has many followers. So, who does not want to be like Jesus? Maybe you will change your mind when I remind you that Jesus was perfect and without sin. All of us are sinners. As long as we live, we will continue to be sinners no matter what. For this reason, God, the Father, sent God the Son to ransom us from the bondage of sin.

 

None of us is perfect as our Lord Jesus Christ. However, our Lord uses your imperfection and weaknesses to advance his kingdom on earth. Despite your sin and imperfection, you are valuable in God's eyes.

 

The gospel of Matthew tells us about Jesus choosing his 12 disciples and sending them on a mission. In the gospel of Luke 6:12-13, Jesus spends a whole night in prayer before he appoints his disciples. Let us look at the makeup of the 12 disciples.

Peter: denied him three times and tried to prevent him from dying on the cross.

Judas Iscariot: betrayed him.

Thomas, the twin, and the intellectual disciple might give Jesus a headache by asking him lots of questions, and he doubted his resurrection.

Simon the Cananean or zealot was freedom fighter fighting the Romans and their allies by killing them.

Matthew, the tax collector, worked for the Romans, and the Jews hated the tax collectors.

The brothers James and John had the nickname of "sons of thunder" because they were rough-hewn guys. They could be very aggressive men.

In the night when Jesus was arrested, all his disciples left him a runaway.

 

Jesus did not surround himself with perfect and ideal disciples but surrounded himself with men who did not enjoy a good reputation. However, the Lord Jesus Transformed them. Jesus entrusts them with the same mission he had from God, the Father. Jesus sends them to preach, teach, and heal. He inducts his disciples and us into the same vocation. Jesus tells the disciples and each one of us, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38, therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest" (9:37-38).

 

Jesus had compassion for the crowd (v. 36), which indicates the urgency of the disciples' mission. He needs workers in his field now. The work and the mission of the disciples and us entail healing and liberation. The sign of the kingdom of heaven is of healing and liberation. Our calling is to proclaim the good news: "The kingdom of heaven has come near.' 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment" (10:7-8). These are the work that Jesus did, and he invites you to do the same work. In this sense, you are Jesus Christ to those who need to hear the good news.

 

Jesus cast out demons from people. He liberates people from Satan and all the powers that constrained them and prevented them from living their lives abundantly. This is your vocation, too. You are called to liberate people from their suffering and bondage and offer them healing. Our vocation and calling as followers of Jesus is to continue the work that Jesus began 2000 years ago. The harvest is still plentiful, and our Lord is still looking for laborers to send to his field to work with him.

 

Look around you, and you will find many people who need someone to free them from the bondage of socio-economic inequality, human trafficking, homelessness, and many more. You are Jesus Christ to those people, and your neighbor is Jesus Christ to you. When you liberate the disadvantaged, you bring Jesus Christ to them.

 

You do not need to be the perfect Christian to become like our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord will continue to transform you and guide you to become more like him. Despite your weaknesses, sin, and vulnerable body, our Lord will use you to perform miracles in your life and people's lives. Jesus is still looking for laborers to work in his field. Are you one of his laborers? I pray you are.

Pentecost: Healing Our Country from Political Partisanship.

Acts 2:1-21

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Pentecost: Healing Our Country from Political Partisanship.

May 31, 2020

Grace and peace to you.

Partisan politics is polarizing the United States. Around the country, partisanship allegiance is fracturing relationships at the level of the family and community. Churches are not immune to this problem. Instead of churches participating in healing this fraction, they are coming apart over politics. Many pastors are feeling the weight of the political partisanship that has divided their congregation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Political polarization and extreme partisanship have divided the country into two parties defined by race, wealth, and geographic groups. This division has impacted the church’s life, and many people feel more suspicious of one another. What a mess we have gotten ourselves into.

 

Healing is what we urgently need. We need God to heal our land from the coronavirus, to heal our broken relationships, and the wounds of division. The Holy Spirit has the power to resist the sin of division and heal our brokenness. The Holy Spirit seeks to reconcile us with one another.

 

Today we celebrate the birthday of our church. Pentecost is derived from the Greek word for "fifty." It occurred 50 days after Jesus' resurrection.  On this holy day, the Jews from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate God’s gift of the law on Mt. Sinai. God chose that particular gathering to give the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit appeared as “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (vv. 3-4). The disciples spoke the languages of many nations. The Pentecost was a sign of God’s desire to bring all nations, races, and religions to God’s family. The Pentecost was and is still an event that brought reconciliation to the divided world. The Holy Spirit seeks to make us one despite our differences.

 

On the day of Pentecost, God proclaims that the kingdom of God is against extreme partisanship and political polarization. There is room for love, forgiveness, and diversity in the kingdom of God. There is no room for bigotry and prejudice, but only room for compassion and tolerance. The church is called to advance the kingdom of God on earth and to reflect Christ’s glory in this divided and wounded world. Our Lord Jesus Christ is seeking partners to work with him to heal this broken world.

 

How do you know that the Holy Spirit inspires you in your relationship with your neighbor? If you carry the fruit of the Holy Spirit, then you are led and inspired by the spirit of God. According to the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the fruit of the Holy Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control” (vv. 22-23).

 

 As we give the Holy Spirit more control in our lives, the Holy Spirit shapes and transforms us to become more like Christ. The Holy Spirit helps us to reject political polarization and bigotry and leads us to work together toward reconciliation. The fruit of the Holy Spirit inspires us to welcome and to respect our neighbor, who has a different opinion than ours. When we open our hearts to the work of the Holy Spirit, we find ourselves living according to the Golden Rule  in Matthew 7:12 “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Anxiety and Fear

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras                       1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 Anxiety         May 24, 2020

Anxiety is the physical, mental, and emotional reaction to stress. Anxiety contributes to muscle pain and tightness. I have experienced these health problems for many years, particularly during coronavirus pandemic and social distancing that isolated me. You can calm your anxiety through the practice of yoga breathing, also called pranayama. Yoga breathing merely is becoming aware of your breath. To start, sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes, take a deep breath in, and pay attention to your breath as it flows into and out from your body.

 

The apostle Peter teaches his church and us, “cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (5:7). I have been practicing Breath Prayers. I breathe in the peace of Christ and breathe out worry, fear, and anxiety over my family, ministry, and so on. Let us practice. Breathe in Christ’s love… Breathe out his love for another person, and perhaps someone you feel jealous of.

I found that discipline of breath prayers as the best free anti-anxiety treatment. I have less pain, relaxed, and more joyful. Anxiety is my enemy, and breath prayers have helped me to win the battle against anxiety. I found the physical and spiritual rest in this practice.

 

The community of the apostle Peter bored anxiety about their safety as they lived in a hostile society toward Christians.

The loss of status and respect, loss of family standing, loss of friends, perhaps even loss of one’s livelihood and, in extreme cases, of one’s life— these are real possibilities for the Christians of Asia Minor. Peter instructs his readers to cast these anxieties on God (5: 7), another way of saying they must entrust themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. [1]

Peter’s church members were worried and anxious about their safety and the safety of their loved ones. We are concerned about getting the COVID-19 as more states are reopening. We are worried about our financial status. We are concerned about losing our job and worried about our relationships. Unlike the apostle Peter’s church, our anxiety and suffering are not related to our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, we are not in danger because of our faith. Regardless of the source of our anxiety, the apostle Peter is encouraging us to “cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”

The community of the apostle Peter suffered because they were living for Christ and refused to compromise their faith. They found the strength to deal with their anxiety and persecution through the Holy Spirit that was resting on them (4:14). The same Spirit is resting on you from the moment you were baptized. This Spirit assures you of the presence of God amid your suffering.

 

Christians in the United States are not imprisoned or beheaded because of Jesus Christ. Western societies are gradually turning their back on our Lord Jesus Christ as culturally irrelevant. While the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa is mostly physical, the persecution of the Christians in the United States is not physical. You are not tortured because of your faith. However, Anti-Christian sentiments are on the rise in our country. Many times, Christians encounter hate speech. They are mocked by their peers at college or work. For example, free Christian speech and exercise of Christian faith are prohibited on college campuses. Atheists have more freedom to express their philosophy much more than Christians. When you suffer on account of Jesus Christ, you should not be surprised as the apostle Peter says, we are called to share in Christ’s suffering. You are meant to carry your cross.

 

The apostle Peter ends with the words of hope to his church. Their suffering is temporary. Even so, the devil is looking to destroy their faith by making their life difficult; God will have the final word. “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen” (5:10-11).

 

 

[1] Jobes, Karen H.. 1 Peter (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (Kindle Locations 7369-7372). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

 

Precious in God’s eyes

1 Peter 2:2-10

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

1 Peter 2:2-10 precious in God’s eyes

May 10, 2020

 

 

You are precious! Have you ever had someone call you, precious? My oldest niece Giselle was four years old when I told her, “you are precious!” She responded with the most incredible smile and asked me what precious mean. I answered, “you are very valuable and cherished. “she ran to her mother and said, “auntie Niveen said I am precious! She was happy to learn a new word and to learn that she is precious.  

 

You are precious in God's eyes, says the Apostle Peter. You are very valuable and cherished. This is your identity as a child of God. The Apostle Peter talks about our new identity in Christ and our vocation as precious people. To explain our new identity in Christ, the Apostle Peter uses the image of a spiritual house and living stones. He talks about two building projects: the first project is carried by builders who use dead stones to build a regular house and reject Jesus Christ as the cornerstone for their project.

 

In ancient architecture and construction, the cornerstone was the stone that was laid to keep the walls together. It was the key point in the construction of the whole building. Without it … or if it was defective … the walls would not be level … the angles would all be wrong … and ultimately, the whole building would come tumbling down. It was the stone upon which the structural integrity of the building rested.[1]

 

The Apostle Peter quotes Isaiah 28:16, which predicts the Messiah as the chosen and precious cornerstone. Those who believe in him will not put to shame. So, we are precious by virtue of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Peter explains that Jesus is the cornerstone to those who believe and stumble stone to those who disbelieve. Hence, the second building project is carried by the community of the Apostle Peter, who accepts Jesus as the cornerstone, and through him, they become a spiritual temple.

 

 In contrast with dead stones, we are living stones by virtue of Jesus' resurrection, who is the cornerstone of the spiritual house. For us Christians, Jesus is the true foundation of our lives. He is the center. He is “the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me [him]” (John 14: 6). Because Jesus is the cornerstone, he unites us all together. Christians together are living building.  Peter is not talking about individuals, but about all the living stones. All of us are needed to build our spiritual building with Jesus Christ, the cornerstone and foundation. Peter’s community forms internal bonds within their community to help them to endure rejection and alienation from the people of the Roman empire.

 

The Apostle Peter encourages his community to focus on their new identity and the new way of worship. Peter tells them that even though they are persecuted and rejected by people, they are precious in God's eyes.  The first Christian martyr Stephen endured rejection and brutal death on account of his faith. The Jewish leaders rejected him and treated him as an unworthy person, but he was precious in God's eyes.

 

By virtue of Jesus' resurrection, we replace the old temple with all its sacrificial system and priesthood with a new one. Now we are chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and God’s own people (1Peter 2: 9 ). These privileges were given to the Israelites. God speaks to the Israelites in Exodus 19:5-6

5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

 

Now through Jesus Christ, all those who believe in him will enjoy these privileges. We form a new race, priesthood, and nation.

 

Rejoice, my friend. You are precious in God's eyes, which is more important than to be precious in the eyes of people. Rejoice because

“Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy” ( 1Peter 2:10)

 

‎1 Peter 2:19-25‎

Enduring Suffering for Christ ‎

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

1 Peter 2:19-25—Enduring Suffering for Christ

May 3, 2020

 

Perpetua and Felicity (believed to have died in AD 203) were Christian martyrs of the 3rd century. Perpetua: young, well-educated, a noblewoman of Carthage in North Africa. Nowadays it is called Tunisia. She was the mother of an infant son. Perpetua endured persecution during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus.[1] Perpetua’s mother was a Christian, and her father a pagan. Her father continually pleaded with her to deny her faith. She refused and was imprisoned.

Despite threats of persecution and death, Perpetua, Felicity–a slave woman and expectant mother–and three companions, refused to renounce their Christian faith. For their unwillingness, all were sent to the public games in the amphitheater.[2] There Perpetua and Felicity were beheaded, and the others killed by beasts. Felicity gave birth to a girl a few days before the games commenced.

The apostle Peter writes his first letter to persecuted Christians. He talks to slaves and women who were enduring hardship and physical abuse because of their faith. His letter is addressed to all persecuted Christians regardless of their gender. But his main focus in chapters 2 and 3 is on slaves and women who represent the lowest class in the Roman Empire.

 

Slaves were the most vulnerable group in Greco-Roman society. The apostle Peter is using them as an example for the Christian believers who are committed to following Jesus Christ. Many noble Christians like Perpetua lost their status and were treated like slaves to convince them to renounce Jesus Christ.

The apostle Peter recognizes the plight and suffering of the Christians. So, he encourages them to live their lives as slaves of God (2:16). The English version of the bible translates slaves as servants, but the actual Greek word means slaves. The apostle Peter advises the persecuted Christians, “as slaves of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil, honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the Emperor” (2:16-17). How interesting to see that the apostle Peter is encouraging the persecuted Christians to honor the Emperor, who was responsible for their suffering.

 

The apostle Peter does not intend to change the social order of the Greco-Roman society. He encourages slaves to endure suffering. It seems that some slaves understood the freedom of the gospel as a tool to liberate themselves from slavery, and some wanted to respond violently to their masters who abused them. But the apostle Peter in verse 18 encourages slaves to accept the authority of their masters, the gentle and the harsh ones.

This teaching sounds very harsh. During the slavery period in the United States, those who obtained slaves read Peter’s letter to their slaves to assure them that their slavery is God’s will. I believe that many African Americans will not feel comfortable with Peter’s teaching on slavery. I agree with them 100%. However, we need to understand the apostle Peter’s teaching within its context.

First, the apostle Peter states that Christian slaves were suffering unjustly. Those Christians refused to participate in pagan worship as their masters did. As a result, they faced physical punishment. The apostle Peter calls this punishment unjust. According to Aristotle, who influenced the Greco-Roman culture,no true injustice can be done” to slaves.  For the apostle Peter to claim unfair treatments to slave implies an unprecedented status for the slave.” [3]

Secondly, the apostle Peter elevates the status of slaves by comparing their suffering to the suffering of Jesus Christ. As the slaves suffered unjustly for their commitment to Jesus Christ, the Lord Jesus suffered unjustly, too. Despite not sinning, Jesus Christ suffered on the cross and bore our sins (vv.22-24). By enduring unjust suffering, Jesus leaves us an example (v. 21). Here, the apostle Peter explains that the bruises of Jesus Christ are manifested in the plight of the slaves. In other words, the suffering of slaves like Felicity and the suffering of any faithful Christian is the suffering of Jesus Christ himself.

Finally, the apostle Peter talks about Jesus as the Good Shepherd and persecuted Christians as sheep. The imagery of Shepherd and sheep has to do with following Jesus' steps in enduring suffering. Despite unjust suffering, the shepherd Jesus Christ provides safety and protection.[4]

 

Suffering is essential to our Christian identity. We might not become martyrs like Perpetua and Felicity, but we might lose our job. We might face rejection by families or loved ones. We might lose our social status because we are committed to our Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle Peter encourages us to endure our suffering patiently and to follow the steps of our Shepherd Jesus Christ, who will continue to take care of us.

 

We live in a society similar to the first church, where religious diversity is dominant. To continue to be faithful and committed to our faith is very challenging, much more than any other time. I encourage you to continue to pray to God through Jesus Christ to help you to remain steadfast in faith and to endure all harassment, persecution, and rejection for the sake of Jesus Christ. If you stay faithful to the Lord Jesus, he will always remain faithful to you, and as a shepherd, he will guide and protect you.

 

 

 

[2] Franciscan Media, “Saints Perpetua and Felicity,” Franciscan Media, March 7, 2020, https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saints-perpetua-and-felicity/.

[3] Jobes, Karen H.. 1 Peter (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (Kindle Locations 4494-4495). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid 4739-4740.

The Road to Emmaus

Luke 24:13-35

Dr. Niveen Sarras

Luke 24:13-35—The Road to Emmaus

April 26, 2020

 

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and Jesus Christ, our Savior.

I invite you to close your eyes for a moment and picture Jesus in your mind. Take a moment to ponder on his image. (Pause). What does Jesus look like? I believe that some of you picture him wearing a knee-length tunic and a chiton. You might imagine him on the cross or imagine his resurrection and ascension. You might imagine him teaching people, performing miracles, or holding a lamb in his arms. We are accustomed to envisaging Jesus doing extraordinary things. I assume that many of you believe that Jesus is in the miracle business. Therefore, we crave for sensational spirituality by asking him to do miracles in our lives.

 

Christ is always present in our lives, even though we do not see astonishing miracles. He operates in our ordinary life, bigger than a sensational miracle. A good example is the narrative of the road to Emmaus. Let us see how the evangelist Luke describes the presence of Jesus in the ordinary life of the two disciples.

 

Our Lord Jesus appears in the text as a stranger and companion. He walks with Cleopas and his anonymous companion (who might be his wife) and joins them on the journey to Emmaus. They could not recognize Jesus, maybe because they were sad and grieving his death (v. 17). Cleopas and his anonymous companion were discussing the crucifixion of Jesus and the women’s vision of angels declaring the resurrection of Jesus. They discredited the women’s testimony about Jesus’ resurrection; otherwise, they would not be sad. Discounting the women’s testimony might be the reason behind Jesus approaching and engaging in conversation with them. The two disciples were disbelieving of Jesus’s ignorance of the most current events in Jerusalem. They asked him, “ Who doesn’t know what has been happening in Jerusalem these days?” In our context, it seems that the execution of Jesus was a hot topic all over the news; it was a trending topic on social media! Exactly like coronavirus is a trending topic on the media.

 

Jesus engages and relates to the two disciples’ ordinary life and everyday concerns. He does not distance himself from their grief and sorrow but offers them a company on their journey. Our Lord Jesus takes a further step to comfort Cleopas and his anonymous companion. He used the Torah and the prophets to explain to them the necessity for the Messiah to suffer, die, and be resurrected (vv. 26-27). Jesus met the two disciples where they were at and gently, and without argument, he explains Scripture to them.

 

 Our Lord Jesus also humbly accepts Cleopas and his anonymous companion’s hospitality. He meets the two disciples at the ordinary meal table. He does not meet them at a fancy banquet or an extraordinary event. Our Lord Jesus meets the two disciples and us as we gather around our daily food. “Once he is at the table, Jesus’ role shifts. He is no longer the honored guest but the host of the meal, and it is in this role that he distributes the bread.”[1] Breaking of the bread is reminiscent of Jesus' similar actions in the account of feeding the multitudes in Luke 9:16, which helped the two disciples to recognize him.

 

 

Cleopas and his anonymous companion represent all of us. We are busy with our daily life and our problems to an extent we do not see Jesus’ presence in our ordinary life. When we live our ordinary life ignoring his presence, we become like that two disciples who discounted the women’s testimony. This kind of life becomes a testimony that our Lord Jesus is still among the dead.

 

God meets you in your ordinary life and your daily routine; we just do not tend to look there. We tend to look for miracles and sensational spirituality. An Anglican preacher Steve Griffiths rightly explains this point:

            We have ordinary responsibilities, ordinary tasks to complete - and we need to live in the ordinariness of life. And if that is where we need to live, then we need to learn to find God there. But how do we do that? How do we find God in the ordinary? We need to understand that, by nature, God is with us in our everyday lives… Our God is not a remote God, who leaves us to struggle through the pains of our lives. Instead, God comes off the mountain and into the valley of our lives and gets his hands dirty to bring us healing and wholeness of life.[2]

 

Dear church, I hope the next time you close your eyes and picture Jesus in your mind, that you imagine him washing dishes with you, working on the computer with you, dining with you. I hope you see him, feeding the hungry, speaking up against injustices, comforting the afflicted, and those who mourn. I hope you also imagine him working with the healthcare workers who are at the frontlines battling the coronavirus disease.

 

[1] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans publishing company, 1997), 849.

[2] Steve Griffiths ‎, “Luke 9: 28-43 - God Meets Us in the 'ordinary' of Life,” St. Andrew's Enfield, accessed April 21, 2020, https://www.standrewsenfield.com/index.php/sermons?layout=edit&id=134.