Monday, January 30, 2017

Blessed Are...

*Post 1 in a 4-post limited series on the Sermon on the Mount*

An icon depicting the Sermon on the Mount.

Three full chapters of the Gospel of Matthew constitute the longest teaching of Jesus in the Scriptures.  From the start of chapter 5 to the end of chapter 7 in Matthew is known as the Sermon on the Mount.  Three chapters is a mighty long sermon, which is why scholars are in agreement that it’s not one single, continuous sermon, but rather a collection, a sort of omnibus of all that Jesus taught the people.  Nobody would’ve been able to stay awake for the whole thing!  Most Episcopalians are ready walk out if a sermon starts to creep, toward 15 minutes, after all!  With that in mind, our Revised Common Lectionary breaks the Sermon on the mount up in these final Sundays leading up to Lent.  As such, these blog posts will also be broken up over the course of four weeks.  Yes, an actual blog series by an Episcopal prist, if you can believe that!  You'd think I've turned Methodist! 

Matthew’s Gospel is often called “the Teaching Gospel.”  In it Jesus is grounded in his role as rabbi, even more so than the other Gospels, and he is constantly teaching the people—either by calling them back to what the prophets and Moses had said before, or by giving them a new interpretation, as we'll see later in on.  As he goes up the mount we find Jesus taking his position for the “sermon," and it's  not a pulpit, rather it’s a seat.  Rabbis and philosophers and all other kinds of ancient teachers sat down whenever they were about to offer something important.  So when Jesus sits, we know he means business and that we should pay attention.

Because it is the "Teaching Gospel," and because Jesus really embodies the role of rabbi—the Jewish teacher—it is no coincidence that Jesus goes up on a mountainside to teach and preach.  If it looks or sounds familiar it’s because it’s meant to invoke Moses going up on Mount Sinai to give the Law to the Israelites.  Just as Moses took his place on the mountain and spoke to the people about their relationship with God and one another, so does Jesus.  Rather than give the people a set of commandments, however, Jesus gives them 10 messages that define what blessedness looks like.  We call these sayings the Beatitudes, meaning "supreme blessedness." 

So here we have Jesus the rabbi teaching and preaching blessedness to a huge crowd, which might have featured a handful of wealthy folks or Temple officials, but for the most part it was a crowd made up of poor folks.  These were the least of these, the ones on the margins.  They were women and men whom society wanted to forget.  They were the sick, the prisoners, and others who were considered notorious sinners.  All of them were desperately wanting to hear a piece of Good News from Jesus.  And this is what he gave them:  

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit.  That is, those of you whose faith has been shattered.  Those who question your faith or who have had your faith ridiculed.  Those who long to know God but don’t even know how to begin.  Yours is the kingdom of God.

  • Blessed are those who mourn, those who know what it is like to lose, those who know sorrow and pain.  You will be comforted.

  • Blessed are the meek.  In our lexicon meekness is associated with gentleness or passivity, but that’s not what is meant here.  Rather, the Greek that is used is meant to invoke humility and the ability to keep one's emotions in-check.  Jesus is saying blessed are those who check their egos at the door and do not give in to the “futility of unyielding anger” as Preston Epps put it.   You will inherit the earth with your meekness, which is an attack on those in authority who have used their military might, manipulative personalities, and political prestige to gain power.

  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  We may not know what it REALLY means to be hungry, but folks in Jesus’ crowds sure did, and heaven knows there are plenty of folks now who still do. Too many folks are comfortable with what they have, so they don’t bother fighting for the righteousness of others.  It’s what Robert Louis Stephenson called “the malady of not wanting.”  Blessed, then, are those who yearn for righteousness, justice, and equality—not just for themselves but for others—and who do so with the same ferocity as one who longs for even a morsel of bread to satisfy the hunger.  Those folks who have that kind of desire and work for God’s righteousness with that kind of abandon will be filled.

  • Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  If you want to get mercy, you have to show it.  If you want to be forgiven, you have to forgive.  If you want to be respected, you have to show respect.  It's about being empathetic and actually attempting to reach out to someone else, to try and understand their motivations and hear their story.  Having this sense of empathy is the only way we can every truly live and work with others.  But if we want to get it, we have to first be willing to step out and give it. 

  • Blessed are the pure in heart; that is, those whose motivations are unmixed, clear, and undivided by agenda.  Why do you do what you do?  Is it for personal gain?  Is it for some kind of praise?  Blessed, Jesus says, are those of you who speak up for others or do some kind of good, not because they're gonna get something in return, but because it’s simply the right thing to do.  Blessed are those whose motivations are clear. We preachers are not immune to this, either.  The English preacher John Bunyan once gave a sermon after which someone said, “You did a great job!” and he responded, “Yes I know.  The devil told me so as I walked down the pulpit steps!”  Those with pure intensions will see God, Jesus says.

  • Blessed are the peacemakers.  Notice Jesus doesn't say “peacelovers.”  It’s not enough to just want peace, you gotta do something about it.  It’s not a passive act!  Jesus certainly wasn’t passive, look at the cleansing of the Temple.  He did something about it.  Many folks say they love peace, that they want peace, but they don't do anything about it;  they are just refusing to face a situation and take action because they're afraid of what might happen if they stepped out.  Being a peacemaker isn't about singing Kumbaya around a campfire.  Peace does not come from the evasion of issues but from facing them, dealing with them, and conquering them.  In our own day we need to be reminded of that.  Making peace is not about accepting things because we are afraid of the trouble of doing something, but making peace is about actively facing things, even when the way to peace is through struggle. 
The next two Beatitudes build off of that:

  • Blessed are those who are persecuted, who have understood that the path to peace often results in struggle. 

  • Blessed are any of you when people revile you, those of you who have lost family, friends, or jobs because you dared to seek God’s righteousness and be a peacemaker. We could also say that blessed are the members of the Church (with a capital C) who know such persecutions.  Those persecutions are inevitable because the Church, when she really is the Church, is bound to be the conscience of a society.  Where there is good, the Church should praise, and when there is evil, the Church should decry.  Inevitably, there will be folks who will try to silence the troublesome voice of conscience, but the Church must never let that fear of persecution hold her back from doing with is right.

  • Finally, he wraps it all up by telling the people around him to rejoice and be glad.  Rejoice and be glad when all of these things occur.  Let’s be honest, folks, this makes little sense.  How many of us would rejoice at being poor?  At being in mourning?  At being hungry?  At being persecuted for doing what was right?  Yet all of this, Jesus says, is the path to supreme blessedness, to the kingdom of God. 

Why are the Beatitudes the path to supreme blessedness?  Because Jesus experienced all of them.  Moreover, God experienced all of them! For us, then, to experience them, for us to model our lives on them, means that we are modeling our lives on Christ himself, on the path that God walked on this earth.  Jesus hungered and thirsted for righteousness for all God’s people, especially those on the margins.  Jesus was persecuted, obviously.  And yes, even Jesus had his moments of being poor in spirit, like when he cried in agony in the garden or asked God why he had been forsaken on the cross.  Jesus’ life is reflected in the Beatitudes, which is why I don’t think it’s a stretch to say they are his greatest teaching, and our greatest heritage as Christians, because if we want to know how to live like Christ, we needn’t look anywhere else but to the Beatiotudes. 

For decades now there have been debates over whether to post the 10 Commandments in public spheres.  They are the foundation of our society, folks say; after all, we are a country of overwhelmingly Christian peoples.  I would like to offer a counter proposal:  let’s publish the Beatitudes instead.  The 10 were the foundation of the Law for the people of Israel.  We are not the people of Israel.  We are the people of Christ.  The 10 were given as part of the Law to a people who didn't know who they were.  We know who we are because we belong to Christ, who himself is the fulfillment of the Law, as we will hear him tell us later in the Sermon on the Mount. If that is the case, then it is the Beatitudes, not the 10 Commandments, that should be at the foundation of our faith. I wonder, then, what would our society look like if we actually practiced them?  Maybe then we would me more merciful and truly strive for justice for people on the margins. Maybe then we would be quicker to call out the evils of society and actually do the hard work necessary to make true and lasting peace.  Maybe then we really would be a Christian society.  The Beatitudes ruffle the feathers of our modern sensibilities, but that’s why they are so important.  They remind us that blessedness does not come in getting the things we hope for, or in property, power, or prestige.  Instead,  blessedness comes in the emptying of ourselves--kenosis--that results in a deeper relationship with Christ and one another.  It's hard.  Many of us say that we believe the Beatitudes but our actions often say otherwise.  This is called "functional atheism," and it is a modern-day heresy.  But if we could actually embrace the Beatitudes, then this world will look more like the Kingdom of God.

Ponder the Beatitudes.  Tattoo them on your heart.  Write them down and put them on your fridge or in your wallet.  Do so and you will know supreme blessedness that you've never known before!  May you be blessed, brothers and sisters.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Better Way: The Church As a Beacon

"Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?  For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."
--I Corinthians 1: 10-15, 17-18

Paul.  He had many leather-bound books.

Let's talk a bit about the letters of Paul.  This guy was kind of a big deal, and if you got one of his letters, that was kind of a big deal.  While the early church respected Paul for his contributions to the life of the faith, the truth is, you usually didn't get a letter from Paul unless something was wrong.  This is especially true for the Corinthians, for whom things were so bad that Paul wrote them once, checked up on them, and then had to write them again; in fact, the Corinthians had to get two MORE letters from Clement of Rome before things finally started to straighten up for them! Basically,  if your church sought the wisdom of someone like Paul and got a letter from him, odds were that things weren't going so well. 

That's what we find here in the first chapter of Paul's First Letter to the Church in Corinth.  It's clear, even to our modern ears, that something is wrong.  After his usual salutation, Paul says, "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, that there be no divisions among you."  Obviously there is division and quarrel afoot, but why?  

Paul writes that some are saying, 'I belong to Paul,' while others are saying, 'I belong to Apollos' or Cephas (that's the Greek name for Peter), or Christ.  Why such hostility?  What were these groupings all about?  Well, the communities to which Paul wrote were extremely diverse, made up of all sorts of Christians.  There were those who were still very much steeped in their Jewish identity, those who were Greek, and those who were some other kind of Gentile.  The members of these groups had mostly been baptized by the same person.  You can see what ends up happening:  one group gets baptized by one person, another group by another person, and eventually the groups begin to bicker and argue, saying, "We're more important than you because so-and-so baptized us."  Yes, this was a real argument!  If we're looking at the groups, it's a fair bet that those who said, 'I belong to Paul' were the Gentile converts, the ones who said, 'I belong to Apollos' were the Greek converts, the philosophers who were trying to adapt their old ways of thinking to this new Christian thing, and those who said, 'I belong to Cephas' were likely the Jewish members of the congregation.  As for those who said, 'I belong to Christ' the theologian William Barclay suggests that these are your run-of-the-mill fundamentalists who believed that they, and they alone had it all figured out.  In short, the the whole makeup of the Corinthian church was a mess.

Paul's advice is for them to put aside their differences and remember what matters.  It does not matter who baptized you.  It does not matter where you came from or what your labels are.  What matters is that you belong to Christ.  All of you.  What matters is the cross, that great big stumbling block:  for Jews because they couldn't get beyond the line in Deuteronomy 21: 23, which says anyone who hangs on a tree is accursed (how then could the Messiah be accursed if he hung on a tree?!), and for Greeks because their wisdom taught them that God could not suffer, otherwise he (or she) is not God.  And yet, Paul reminds them, this community is full of Jews and Greeks--and all sorts of other folks--who have been able to lean on the unifying love of Christ poured out on the cross without letting their identities as Jews and Greeks get in the way.  At least not up to this point.  Now, all of a sudden, folks are letting their smaller labels--Jew, Greek, Gentile--get in the way of their larger label--Christian.  This is a problem.  

Christians today are not so different.  We have our little groups too, which we call Episcopalians, or Methodists, or Roman Catholics, or Baptist, and too often we let such labels get in the way.  We are, first and foremost, Christians.  We belong, first and foremost, to Christ.  We do not belong to the Episcopal Church, or the Methodist Church, or the Roman Catholic Church, or the Baptist Church, but we belong to THE Church, which is to say, the Body of Christ.  That's not to say being Episcopalian, or  Methodist, or Roman Catholic is a bad thing. We need to affirm those identities because they are important to us, they shape who we are.  Paul does not condemn the people for being Jews or Greeks--shoot, he himself affirms over and over again that he is a Jew.  They should maintain those identities, but they must never let them get in the way of their common life as Christians.  And we are the same way.  It's ok for us to embrace our individual identity as Episcopalians, but we must never claim that we are somehow better Christians because of it.  What unites us is always more important than what divides us.  Paul knew that, and so must we.

Imagine a church made up of folks from all over the spectrum of Christianity.  There are those who have been in the church for generations, others who have just recently joined, and others who are there but aren't sure they buy into it just yet.  All of these folks have an identity that they bring into the church, and that affects how they worship, how they hear the sermon, which songs they know, or whether they stand or kneel to pray.  Each person brings something different, yet this church is united in its diversity.  Know of any church like that?  I do:  the Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina!

Good Shepherd, which I have been blessed to serve for the last year and a half, is a community made up of folks from all walks of life. There are those of  who have been Episcopalians our whole lives.  There are those who still deeply identify with another tradition, be it Methodist or Roman Catholic, or whatever, but who come to Good Shepherd because they find it a place of welcome and refreshment. There are others who aren't even sure what they identify as, and they too have a place where they can belong.  This church is really good about welcoming people right where they are.  It doesn't matter what labels we wear, what matters is our love for Jesus; after all, that's what brought folks here.  Each person is honored, each of their labels respected and upheld, but at the end of the day everyone unites around the larger label that we all share:  the label of a follower of Jesus Christ.  I look around Good Shepherd and see the kind of community that Paul had hoped Corinth would be; that is, a diverse and united community. 

I know that you know churches like that.  Maybe your church is like that.  Now imagine if those of us who are part of such welcoming and affirming communities took that attitude, that kind of welcome, out into the world with us.  Inside the church walls we're so good at looking past labels and affirming people for who they are, I wonder if we might do that elsewhere, too?  In a world that is so divided on so many fronts--where some folks have their smaller labels disrespected, while others cling to their smaller label so tightly that they can never even speak to the Other--I wonder if we could be the beacon, if we could show the world a better way, a way that affirms our individual identities, while reminding them that what unites is always more important than what divides.  I wonder if our church communities could go into the world and make it a little more like that Kingdom we always talk about. 

Ya know, not much has changed in 2000 years.  The church is still a wonderfully diverse community that gets so caught up in the camps of us and them.  But the dream Paul had--which is nothing less than the dream of the Kingdom of God--is still alive.  We are the inheritors of that dream.  We can, and we will, show the world what that dream looks like.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

What Are You Looking For?

Pop quiz:  what are the first words spoken by Jesus in the gospels?    Each gives a different account:  Mark has Jesus proclaim the kingdom of God has come near, Matthew has him reassure John the Baptist that he must be baptized to fulfill all righteousness, and Luke has 12 year old Jesus calm his parents down when he goes missing in his father’s house, the temple.  But what about the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel According to John?  This past Sunday we heard Jesus' first words in that gospel, and, as is normally the case, John's account is pretty different.  Here Jesus' first words are in the form of a question.  And it is a doozy of a question.  

As Jesus is walking by John the Baptist points to him and says to two of his own disciples, “Look!  Here is the Lamb of God!  Here is the one who takes away the sins of the world!”  And those two disciples, one of whom is Simon Peter's brother Andrew, are so excited that they run after Jesus.  Then they get to him, and they don’t know what to say.  They’re awestruck.  And then Jesus gives his first line of the Gospel:  “What are you looking for?”

An artist's depiction of Jesus' encounter with the two disciples.

What are you looking for?  Sometimes the words of Scripture are so limited to their own time and place that it hardly feels like they’re speaking to us at all.  This ain't one of those times!  These words are for us.  Here and now.  Imagine it.  Picture it.  You’re walking along the street.  You see Jesus.  You run up to him the way you’d run up to your favorite ballplayer or movie star.  Then he turns and he looks at you, calls you by name, and he asks, “What are you looking for?”  How in the world do you respond?!

Even the disciples who followed after him don't  know exactly what to say.  They ask where are you staying, which isn’t really an appropriate translation.  The Greek verb used here is memo , which means abide, remain, endure, continue.  Where are you abiding, Jesus?  Where are you remaining, enduring, continuing?  They are not so much asking what’s Jesus’ physical address, but they want to know about the abiding, remaining, enduring, and continuing dwelling place of this one that John has just exclaimed is the Lamb of God.  Where are you staying?  Where can we find you?  Where will we go to be with you, to receive what you have to offer?   In short, what they want to know is how, when, where, and in what manner they may know and be with Jesus.  And his response, a simple invitation:  “Come and see.”

Brothers and sisters, we may all be better off if every now and again we were to put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples and hear the voice of Jesus asking us:  what are you looking for?  What am I looking for?  In my day-to-day life?  In my job?  In my relationships?  What am I looking for out of this whole 'being a Christian' thing?! What’s my goal, my aim?  In a culture dominated by the acquisition of things, where the search for meaning has been thwarted by the search for stuff, the exchange of questions between Jesus and these disciples—even the exchange of questions between Jesus and ourselves—provides an alternative.  What are we looking for as we gather in our places of worship week after week?  Some are looking for a place of belonging.  Some a place where their prayers can be heard, if not answered.  Some come to offer their praise and thanks for the positive things that have happened each to them this week.  Some come with physical or emotional pain, hoping to be made well.  Some come for the songs.  Some for the Sacrament.  Some even for the sermon.  Deep down I suspect we are all want to be in the place where Jesus abides.  We want to know how, when, where, and in what manner we may know and be with Jesus, just like those disciples.  What are we looking for?  Simply put we are looking for Jesus.  Well, his response to us is the same as it was to those disciples.  Come and see, he tells us.  Come and see.

Come to any number of places, including the Church of the Good Shepherd, where I serve, and  you will see him.  You'll see him glorified in prayer and in song.  You'll meet him at the holy table where those who are looking to be made well can taste him in the medicine of immortality.  Indeed, my brothers and sisters, Good Shepherd and places like it are where we know the Lord Jesus abides.  We know that he can ask us that question—what are you looking for—and we know that we can seek the answers in such places.  Together.  Because it is Christ himself who invites us to meet him there. 

A great many of us Christians, regardless of what label we give ourselves, are members of our local congregations because in one way, shape or form, Jesus invited us to be there.  Maybe Jesus spoke to you directly and compelled you to join a church.  Maybe Jesus worked through a family member, or a friend, or a dog, and invited you in for worship.  The point is we all, at one point, were invited into a relationship with the Lord Jesus.  We had questions that needed answers and wounds that needed healing, but Jesus invited us, nonetheless.  Many of us mainline Christians may not like to talk about evangelism, but that is exactly what invitation is about!

There is a world out there that is full of questions, full of wounds.  There are folks who feel that Jesus has turned his back on them, or that he could never love them.  There are folks whom Jesus still asks—what are you looking for—but who are too afraid of judgment and ridicule to be honest enough to give their answer.  This is where we come in, those of us who have struggled to answer that question ourselves.  We know what it is like to be confused, to be lost, to be hurt.  But Jesus said to us once, “Come and see.” and so we came and we have seen healing, we have seen salvation, and we have seen resurrection in those places that we call OUR church.  It is up to us to offer that same invitation that Jesus offered to us; after all, Jesus has no hands, no feet, no heart, and no voice but ours, brothers and sisters, we who are the body of Christ.  As he invited those two disciples into a relationship that changed their lives he has invited all of us, and so we too must be bold enough to invite others into that relationship.  It is the kind of relationship that brings healing and wholeness to a world in so much pain, and it can make this world a little more like that kingdom he talked about. 

It began with a simple question that he asked those two disciples long ago, that he continues to ask us daily, and that we are called to ask the world.  What are you looking for?  Are you looking for hope?  For healing?  For acceptance?  For love?  You will find all this and more in a relationship with Jesus Christ, but it is up to us who are already in that relationship to reach out to others and invite them in. When we reach out to others and ask them, 'What are you looking for?' we open ourselves up to conversation, and then we can offer that invitation to 'Come and see.'  When we do that our lives are changed, and we behold the goodness of the Lord.