By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 4:12-17; 6:22-23
In May of 1738, John Wesley, the father of Methodism, wrote the following in his journal: “In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where [some]one was reading [Martin] Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[i]
This one small journal entry from Wesley, who produced volumes of sermons, letters, and teachings over the course of his life, is today referred to as his “Aldersgate experience.” Some have even gone so far as to define it as the moment of Wesley’s conversion. Yet, biographers of Wesley’s life point out that Wesley clearly and frequently writes of his trust in Christ before his Aldersgate experience and that “in the first six months after Aldersgate he reports numerous instances of spiritual depression.”[ii]
[i] John Wesley, edited by Albert Outler, Oxford University Press, 1964. This and the subsequent quote are taken from Part One, chapter 2, The Aldersgate Experience, found on pages 51-69.
We’re currently in the midst of a sermon series that focuses on what it means to be a follower, or disciple, of Jesus. To be a disciple of Jesus is a lifelong journey in which, in addition to welcoming and trusting in the grace of God through Christ, we also engage in spiritual practices or habits (like prayer, reading and studying scripture, serving those in need, etc.), regular habits that foster a deep and abiding relationship with Christ.
But here’s the thing: I think the popularity and notoriety of Wesley’s Aldersgate experience betrays our human desire to deeply feel the presence of Christ and to deeply feel Jesus’ love for us. It is a desire and expectation often further stoked by our religious culture … and yet, like
Wesley, we don’t always feel this assurance of faith. And then, like Wesley, we may worry: can we be growing closer to Jesus if we don’t feel closer to Jesus?
The truth is that, as human creatures, our feelings ebb and flow. Now that’s not to say our feelings don’t matter. They absolutely do. But feelings are not an adequate barometer for where we are in any relationship. Even in our journey with Christ, we will – hopefully – all have occasional moments when we feel deeply the presence and love of Jesus, a sort of “spiritual high”; those mountain top experiences.
Nearly twenty years ago, I was on a spiritual retreat. The final morning of the retreat, during our time of worship, I was suddenly overcome with a feeling of joy and peace like I had never felt before. It wasn’t because of anything that had happened to me; it was welling up from within. I felt engulfed in God’s love. I remember hearing our retreat leader praying and wishing for silence because even her words – as eloquent and sincere as they were – seemed like a distraction from my sense of being deeply united with Christ. It is an experience that words cannot express. I was caught up in the Spirit. But, despite all the times of worship and prayer and the many retreats I’ve attended since that time, an experience that powerful – such an all-consuming feeling of joy and peace – well, it was a spiritual one-off.
Because we cannot control the Spirit of God and our human emotions and feelings will inevitably ebb and flow.
So what do we do at those times when our prayers feel like nothing but empty words and when our reading of scripture does not seem to yield any meaningful insight or inspiration? In other words, what do we do when we don’t feel the presence of Jesus? Does that mean the relationship has stagnated? Does it mean we are no longer growing in our discipleship?
Well, the early chapters of the Gospel of Matthew do reveal some ways – beyond our feelings and emotions – that we can monitor our Christian discipleship.
The passages I read this morning from Matthew deal with light. It is John’s gospel that proclaims Jesus as the light of the world[i]; yet Matthew’s gospel is also clear that, the coming of Jesus has brought light into a darkened world. Darkness has always been a threatening thing to us. As children, we beg our parents to leave on the nightlight because we fear the dark. When I was a child, I had this cardboard tri-fold that was a picture of Jesus that I assume was made from phosphorescent paint. At bedtime my mom would hold it close to my lamp. Then, when she tucked me into bed and turned off the light, Jesus would continue to shine in the dark. It was really pretty awesome and wonderful imagery for a child: Jesus, the light of the world shining over me as I fell to sleep.
There is something reassuring about light. Without light, we cannot see; both physically and metaphorically. Today, we know how physical vision works. It begins with light entering the eye through the cornea and lens. But physical vision was understood quite differently in the ancient world. Most ancient persons believed that the light necessary for vision came not from an outward source, but from the individual’s heart.[ii] Light, they believed, was kindled from within. So, while we now know light must enter into the eye from outside to create sight, they believed light exited the eye from within the person’s heart thus creating sight. That is why blind people were shunned in the ancient world. People didn’t understand the medical causes of blindness. Instead, they believed in the evil eye and that one with a “darkened eye” could, through their eye, destroy things or people; anything from crops to children.[iii]
The second passage of scripture I read from Matthew this morning is often poorly translated in English. A more precise translation is the one I provided:
22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is generous, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is envious, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
So, while the ancient understanding of the connection between light, vision and the human heart was bad medical science, it is good theology because certainly what resides within our hearts does come out of us and it does impact the world around us. That is why, later in the gospel of Matthew in a dispute with the religious authorities regarding the ceremonial washing of hands before eating, Jesus asserts “out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person [or make them unclean].”[iv] Friends: if Jesus, the light of the world, is within our hearts, then our attitudes, words and actions should bring the light of Christ into the world around us.
The first scripture I read this morning is Jesus’ announcement that his ministry has begun; a ministry through which light will shine on those who have been sitting in darkness. Immediately after announcing his ministry, Jesus gathers a handful of disciples and climbs a mountain to teach a large crowd. It is what we refer to as The Sermon on the Mount. Now the sermon stretches across three full chapters[v] and, don’t worry, I’m not going to read or summarize all of it to you this morning. But I would contend that there are three consistent themes within those three chapters and that those three consistent themes provide a way for us – independent of our emotions and feelings – to better monitor our Christian discipleship. Those themes are: righteousness, trust, and generosity. They are printed in your program under the sermon title: righteousness, trust and generosity.
Now, I’ve preached frequently in the past around the topics of righteousness and trust, so this morning I want to focus on generosity.
When I was four years old, my dad was in seminary and pastoring a small church in a rural Appalachian community called Lockington, Ohio. There was a little girl in the church my age, Lori, and she and I became fast friends. We had moved to Ohio from Johnstown, PA, an area heavily influenced by Catholicism. In the Catholic Church, children don’t take communion until they are confirmed. So, it became the prevailing custom within our religious culture and I never took communion until one day in Lockington as I sat in worship with my little friend, Lori. Communion was taken in the pews. Tiny cubes of bread in a plate were passed along the rows followed by trays holding tiny cups of juice. Lori took her cube of bread. But when my dad said the words, “The body of Christ broken for you; take and eat,” Lori – observing I had no bread, broke her tiny cube in half and passed one half to me. Likewise, when the cups came around and my dad said, “The blood of Christ poured out for you; take and drink,” Lori sipped just a bit from her cup and passed the reminder to me. Lori was generous towards me. She did not want me to go without. She did not want me to be excluded so she gave what she had to give; an act of spontaneous generosity and grace.
Jesus speaks of generosity often in the Sermon on the Mount. He speaks of material generosity when he says, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”[vi] He reminds his disciples not to store up treasures on earth, but in heaven.[vii] Near the end of chapter 5, Jesus proclaims God’s indiscriminate generosity and grace when he says that God the heavenly Father makes his sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.[viii] Sun and rain are essential to the production of food and in modern America where food is so easily shipped from across the country and imported from around the world; we often forget how precarious life was for ancient Palestinian peasants. Without sun and rain, crops would not grow and starvation would be the inevitable result. Also, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages the giving of alms or charity, but that it should be done discreetly.[ix] We should not give just to get attention but we should give from our hearts because God will see and honor our giving.
But Jesus goes beyond material generosity and teaches generosity of spirit. He cautions, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”[x] Jesus reminds us that we ought to seek reconciliation[xi] and forgive as God has forgiven us. He reminds us of the blessing we receive in showing generosity of spirit toward others when he teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”[xii] This connection between the light of God and generosity is picked up in the book of James where we read, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”[xiii]
Friends: our generosity is a clear indicator of our growth in discipleship. It is an indicator of our growth in discipleship because it is a demonstration of our trust in God. One of the most well-known portions of this Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ teaching regarding worry.[xiv] Jesus reminds us of how carefully God cares and provides for the flowers and the birds. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says, and “consider the lilies of the field.” Therefore, “Do not worry,” Jesus says, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” Within the Sermon on the Mount, as he teaches us to pray, Jesus again says, “your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask him.”[xv] A growing generosity is a byproduct of a growing trust in Christ. The two go hand in hand. Trust is revealed through our willingness to risk for the sake of extending God’s generosity and grace toward others. The opposite of such a trust is fearful self-preservation in which we circle the wagons and shut ourselves off from others, particularly those in need who may ask a great deal from us.
Friends, feelings will ebb and flow and we may experience seasons in our lives when we do not feel as if our faith is growing; we do not feel an increasing sense of God’s presence. But we can look at our bank accounts and calendars and assess: are we practicing generosity with our time, our talents, and our money… or are we only offering as much as we think we can afford. If we only contribute what we think we can or should, that’s not really generosity, that’s prudence. Again, when we deposit our monthly paycheck, do we consider all of our own needs and wants and only then contribute what is left over? That’s not generosity. And, when we put appointments into our calendars do we begin by marking down opportunities to respond to needs in the world or does serving others get whatever time is left over? The light of Christ shines forth from our hearts in demonstrations of generosity – generosity of time, of money, of spirit.
Perhaps you have heard recent news stories about Kyler’s Kicks. Kyler Nipper is a 14-year old who has begun a not-for-profit to provide shoes for low-income individuals who need them, particularly children. Kyler has an Achilles tendon deformation that puts added pressure on the fronts of his shoes causing his shoes to wear out quickly. Fellow classmates made fun of Kyler’s shoes. The bullying escalated to the point that, one day at age 11, Kyler was physically attacked by another youth and hospitalized. It resulted in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It would have been a good excuse for Kyler to withdraw from the world. But Kyler went another direction. He started Kyler’s Kicks to prevent other children from enduring what he endured. Kyler has now given away more than 25,000 new and gently used shoes. But here’s what’s most amazing about Kyler. Because of his extensive medical bills and treatment after being attacked, his family found themselves in financial peril and lost their home. Kyler has been running his not-for-profit from a homeless shelter.[xvi]
Friends: to be a disciple of Jesus is a lifelong journey of growth and maturity. We may not always feel or have an accurate inward sense of where we are in that journey. But we can assess for signs of growing generosity in our lives because, as disciples of Jesus, growing generosity correlates with a growing trust in Christ. Trust and generosity are signs that the light of Christ kindled within us is growing brighter and pouring forth light into the world.
[i] See John 8:12. This saying is followed, in chapter 9, by Jesus “rekindling” the light within a man born blind whose sight is restored when he is immersed in a pool named Siloam (which translates “sent”) revealing that by being “immersed” in the light of the world, his inward “light” is restored. For more, see One Thing I Know: How the Blind Man of John 9 Leads an Audience Toward Belief by Britt Leslie, Pickwick Publications, 2015
[ii] For more explanation, see One Thing I Know (ibid), pp. 120-129.
[iii] Ibid., p. 126.
[iv] Matthew 15:19
[v] See Matthew 5:1 – 7:29.
[vi] Matthew 5:42
[vii] Matthew 6:19-21
[viii] Matthew 5:45
[ix] Matthew 6:1-4
[x] Matthew 7:1
[xi] Matthew 5:23-25
[xii] Matthew 5:12
[xiii] James 1:17
[xiv] See Matthew 6:25-34
[xv] See Matthew 6:8
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