Sunday, November 25, 2018

11-25-18 The Sermon on the Mount: The Beatitudes Pt. 3

11-25-18 The Sermon on the Mount: The Beatitudes Pt. 3

   I begin today by sharing with you what for many is a familiar and beloved poem. Hopefully its relevance will become clear in today’s message.

The Road Not Taken - By Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
   I’ve shared with you before that Mark’s Gospel is my favorite book of the Bible. I like it for it’s simplicity of structure, for its basic “just the facts” approach to the stories of Jesus without a lot of theological or doctrinal embellishment, and I like it because, in its original version, Mark had the guts to allow the story to end   with the women at the empty tomb frightened by the implications of what lay before them instead of tying it  all up in a nice Easter bonnet bow for us. He allowed for the uncertainty that must have been present in the women at that time. And I appreciate the dangling questions and growth that come with a process-oriented theology more than I do the seemingly pat answers of a systematic approach. I can relate more to the simple humanity evidenced in Mark more than I resonate with the piety of John. Although, as with Robert Frost, I do appreciate the poetry in John. That’s just how I roll.
   At the same time, if I had to offer my favorite passage of scripture within the Bible, it would be the Sermon on the Mount, and more specifically the Beatitudes, at or near the top of the list. I have preached this passage multiple times in ten years of ministry, each time gleaning something new from a fresh reading, a new context, and access to different sources that either challenge or build upon my previous thinking. And the Beatitudes certainly will challenge many of our staid ways of thinking.
   A few weeks ago Lynn and I drove up to Delaware to visit the recently widowed wife of a United Methodist Pastor who had served in Lynn’s parents’ church in Sandusky years ago. Ned had just recently died after a long battle with cancer and Shirley asked if I would be interested in any of his books. Salivating like Pavlov’s dog at the ringing of a bell, we drove to Delaware and I quickly began a deep dive into yet another literary candy store from which to feed my book addiction. Many of the titles were familiar, already having a place on my many shelves. Others were new to me so I grabbed them up and placed them in boxes that I would bring home and allow to acclimate to their new environment before finding homes for them in whatever bookshelf was most appropriate - 
or had space.
   One of those new books was a gem written by Glen Stassen, a professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, titled “Living the Sermon on the Mount.” I knew it would be good both by the number of things that Ned had underlined in the text, as well as the fact that the endorsements on the back cover of the dust jacket were from people who represent both theologically progressive and conservative lenses. That kind of “bi-partisanship” is as rare in the church as it is in politics, so when you see it you grab it and hold tight - which I did. 
   And one of the things that I loved when I got to the section about the Beatitudes themselves, is that Stassen, after extensive study of not only the original language, but how that language is used throughout scripture, retranslates the verses to what he believes Jesus was actually saying. Rather than “blessed” or “happy” he translates the Greek makarios as “joyful,” because that same word is used 50 other times in the New Testament as “joyful” rather than either “blessed” or “happy.” 
So Stassen’s translation says:
  • Joyful are those who are poor and humble before God, for theirs is the reign of God.
  • Joyful are those who are deeply saddened to the point of action, for they will be comforted.
  • Joyful are those whose wills are surrendered to God, for they will inherit the earth.
  • Joyful are those who hunger and thirst for restorative justice, for they will be filled.
  • Joyful are those who practice compassion in action, for they will receive God’s compassion.
  • Joyful are those who seek God’s will in all that they are and do, for they will be called children of God. 
  • Joyful are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
  • Joyful are those of you who suffer because of restorative justice, for theirs is the reign of God.
  • Joyful are you when they criticize, persecute, and slander you because of me.
  • Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in God. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.
   This, according to Stassen, would be the best understanding of what Jesus intended in this message. And he points out that Jesus is saying that these “joys” are not a to-do list to get into heaven, but rather they are signs of the present and future reign of God - that which is present in Jesus Christ and that which is to come when God’s reign is fully in place. The beatitudes, he says, are an experience that is already beginning in Jesus.
   Contrary to how we tend to interpret them, these are not high ideals that Jesus is urging us to live up to. That is an ethics of idealism, focusing attention on our own good works and hard effort rather than on participation in God’s grace. It urges us to make a superhuman effort to live up to ideals that are difficult if not impossible for us to reach. And he says, “It often leads people to praise Jesus for teaching wonderfully high ideals, but then to say that in real life we have to live by some other, more realistic, ethic.” 
   He goes on, “When seen as a type of idealism, Jesus’ teachings are about imposing [a set of principles, moral values, or ideals] on us from above that do not fit our real struggle. They seem to be foreign to our nature, like a pair of pants too tight for our body, or a job that does not fit our gifts and interests. 
We try to make our reality fit the ideals, but it simply does not fit. Idealistic thinking is wishful, not realistic. It does not point out the way to deal with problems.
   “The more we emphasize these teachings as ideals to live up to, the guiltier and less worthy we feel. Some of us even avoid Jesus’ teachings. Or, if we think we do live up to these ideals, we become self-righteous. [Like Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the Publican,] we thank God that we are not like other people, who are not so virtuous as we are. Our moralistic arrogance makes us hard to live with.”
   Stassen reminds the reader that “the gospel is about God coming to deliver us, not our building ourselves up to attempt to reach God’s heights by living out impossibly high ideals.” Now this might be a little confusing to us. “Aren’t we supposed to act in these ways?” we ask. Aren’t we supposed to be humble, merciful, and make peace? Of course we are. The point is why. Are we doing it because we think it will punch our ticket to heaven, or because doing so reflects God’s presence in our lives? Is Jesus saying, “Joyful are those who are poor and humble before God” because being poor and humble makes them virtuous so they will get the reward that virtuous people deserve? Or is he saying, “Joyful are those who are poor and humble before God” because God is gracious and God is acting to deliver the poor and humble? There is a huge difference in those two readings of this one beatitude - and it leads to an entirely different understanding of what God is doing in our lives.
   The beatitudes are not some theological performance improvement plan or Salvation for Dummies checklist. The beatitudes, given primarily to the disciples but also to others who had begun to follow Jesus at a distance, are geared towards people who have already begun to experience being saddened, criticized, or persecuted for choosing to follow him, or who have begun the counter cultural task of making peace. Jesus is talking to insiders about the grace of God that is both present and coming to help ease the difficult journey they’d already begun. Their basis is not on the perfection of the disciples’ activity or actions, but on the coming grace of God.
   One way we can see how Jesus is using these teachings is in his use of Isaiah 61. Jesus quoted Isaiah more than any other book. In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus read from the scroll in the synagogue announcing his mission, it was from Isaiah 61:
The Sprit of the Lord is upon me
Because he has anointed me;
He sent me to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim release for the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind;
to let the broken victims go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

   So, is this a passage about human effort to live up to high ideals? Is it urging us to become poor, prisoners, blind, and victims so that God will reward us? 
No. It’s a passage celebrating that God is acting graciously to deliver us from our poverty and captivity into God’s reign of deliverance, justice, joy, and salvation. 
   The beatitudes are not about high ideals, but God’s gracious deliverance and our joyous participation in and response to God’s grace. Here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says we are blessed, we are joyful, because God is NOT distant or absent; we experience God’s reign and presence in our midst and will experience it even more in the future. Therefore each beatitude begins and ends with the joy, the happiness, the blessedness, of the good news of participation in God’s deliverance. The beatitudes say what Isaiah 35 tells us: “Strengthen the tired hands and revive the stumbling knees. Say to the despairing hearts: Be of good cheer! Do not be afraid! See, your God is coming!”
   When we understand the beatitudes prophetically as God’s gracious deliverance, they match up well with Jesus’ teachings of the parables of the reign of God. And that’s what Reign of Christ Sunday calls us to celebrate as well. It is with that understanding then, that we approach our final three beatitudes.

Joyful are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God

   Remember the quote for G.K. Chesterton that I shared with you last week, that “the Christian ideal had not been tried and found wanting. It had been found difficult and never tried?” If there is any Christian ideal that we have never tried, it’s being peacemakers. Our understanding of peace today is often the same as that of the Roman Empire’s Pax Romani - a peace that is aggressively and brutally enforced, with military might if necessary. 
True peace is more than the absence of violence or war, but that’s all we know of peace. And we know little of that. 
   General Omar Bradley, the great military leader of D-Day and World War II, once said, “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. . . . Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.” —General Omar Bradley.

   President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the rise of what he called “the military industrial complex,” - that blending of interests that profit handsomely by an ever-growing and ever more engaged military, whether it’s needed for actual security or not. We see the truth in Eisenhower’s warning in the way in which production of nearly every component of every military system is distributed into each and every congressional district in the U.S. With that kind of broad-based manufacturing strategy, even when the military decides it no longer needs a certain weapon or weapon system, they have to fight Congress to get rid of it because it might cost jobs in each member’s district. So when we read Jesus’ words “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” we smile knowingly, understanding that Jesus’ ideas of peace face an uphill battle in our world.
   As Fr. Richard Rohr writes about it, “The peace of Christ waits and works for true peace by sacrificing the false self of power, prestige, and possessions. 
Such peacemaking will never be popular. The follower of Jesus is doomed to minority status. Jesus, [in the next beatitude] warns us that we will be hated from all sides. When you’re working outside the system, when you work for peace, you will not be admired inside the system. In fact, you will [either look naive and foolish, or you will] look dangerous, subversive, and unpatriotic. One thing you cannot call Jesus was a patriot. He was serving a far bigger realm.”
   And Rohr goes on to say, “One of the most distressing qualities of many Christians today is that they retain the right to decide when, where, and with whom they will be pro-life peacemakers. If the other can be determined to be wrong, guilty, unworthy, or sinful, the death penalty is somehow supposed to serve justice. That entirely misses the ethical point Jesus makes: We are never the sole arbiters of life or death, because life is created by God and carries the divine image. It is a spiritual seeing, far beyond any ideology of left or right.”
   John Dear writes even more matter-of-factly: “With this Beatitude, Jesus announces that God is a peacemaker. Everyone who becomes a peacemaker is therefore a son or daughter of the God of peace.” 
And the assumption then, that follows, is that the opposite is also true - those who do not become peacemakers are not sons or daughters of God.
   Dear continues, “With this teaching, Jesus describes the nature of God as nonviolent and peaceful. This one verse,” he says, “throws out thousands of years of belief in a violent god and every reference to a war-making god in the Hebrew Scriptures. It does away with any spiritual justification for warfare . .  Instead, it opens vast new vistas in our imaginations about what the living God is actually like, and what God’s reign might be like. With this beatitude, we glimpse the nonviolence of [God’s reign] and join the global struggle to abolish war and pursue a new world of nonviolence here on earth. . . .
   “As peacemakers,” he continues, “we are nonviolent to ourselves, nonviolent to all others, all creatures, and all creation, and we work publicly for a new world of nonviolence. . . .[We are called to] speak out against every aspect of violence—poverty, war, racism, [sexism], police brutality, gun violence, nuclear weapons, and environmental destruction—and at the same time call for a new culture of peace.” Truly, peacemaking is the Christian ideal that has been found difficult and left untried.

Joyful are those of you who suffer because of restorative justice, for theirs is the reign of God.

   We shouldn’t be surprised that this Beatitude follows the previous ones. We talked last week about the difference between our thinking about justice as retribution, while God’s view of justice is solely about restoration. The first and last Beatitudes are present tense: Theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Until this statement, Jesus has said “joyful are the . . .,” speaking generally. Now he says joyful are “those of you. . . .” Very likely Matthew is suggesting that this scene is happening directly in front of Jesus. His small community of disciples and followers is being persecuted for pursing justice, and Jesus tells them to “rejoice and be glad!” Persecution for the cause of justice is inevitable. Instead of seeking to blame someone for their well-earned scars, he is telling them two clear things: You can be joyfuland you can be joyful now - for the Reign of God is at hand!

   And finally, Matthew 5:11-12 could really be called the ninth Beatitude, although it more likely is an explanation of the eighth:

 Joyful are you when they criticize, persecute, and slander you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in God. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.
   The disciples’ response is a prophetic action itself. To live joyfully amid misunderstanding and slander points to the Reign of God. Goodness can never be attacked directly; the messengers or the motivation must be discredited.
   Luke’s Gospel presents the same message in the opposite form: “Alas for you when the world speaks well of you! This was the way their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). Too much praise is probably an indication that it is not the full Gospel. In either case, Jesus himself clearly knew that his teaching would turn conventional values on their head.
   Jesus taught an alternative wisdom rather than the maintenance of social order - a wisdom that got him killed. Yet most of Christian history tried to understand Jesus inside the earlier stage of law and order. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is anything but about maintaining the status quo!

Theologian Marcus Borg wrote:
The gospel of Jesus—the good news of Jesus’ own message—is that there is a way of being that moves beyond both secular and religious conventional wisdom. The path of transformation of which Jesus spoke leads from a life of requirements and measuring up (whether to culture or to God) to a life of relationship with God. It leads from a life of anxiety to a life of peace and trust. It leads from the bondage of self-preoccupation to the freedom of self-forgetfulness. It leads from life centered in culture to life centered in God.”
   Jesus says that the people who live these blessings, these joys, these Beatitudes, will be “the salt of the earth” (Mt. 5:13). For ancient people, salt was an important preservative, seasoning, and symbol of healing. What does Jesus mean by this image? First, to repeat, he’s not saying that those who live this way are going to heaven. He is saying that they will be a gift for the earth. Conventional thinking is that Jesus’ teaching are prescriptions for getting to heaven (even though we haven’t followed them), not accepting or grasping that salvation is a gift from God and not something we can earn. Instead, the Sermon on the Mount is a set of descriptions of a free life - here and now - centered in God.
   Jesus’ moral teaching is very often a description of the final product rather than a detailed process for getting there. When you can weep, when you can identify with the little ones, when you can make peace, when you can be persecuted and still be joyful . . . then you’re doing it right. He is saying, as it were, this is what holiness looks like. When you act this way, “The Reign of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned about control, enforcement, or uniformity. His priority is proclamation, naming, and revealing. Then he trusts that good-willed people and a reliable and patient God will take it from there.
   “If salt becomes tasteless, how can we salt the world with it?” asks Jesus (Mt. 5:13). That message seems especially true today. If Christians—Jesus’ self-proclaimed followers—no longer believe the Gospel, if we no longer believe in nonviolence and powerlessness, mercy and grace, then who’s going to convert usWe’re supposed to be the leaven of the world, yet if we no longer believe in the Gospel, if we’re unwilling to follow Jesus’ teachings, what hope do we have of offering anything new to anyone else?
   Finally, Jesus says, “You are light for the world; a city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5:14-15). Our job is to be a shining truth, to live the truth as best we can, and let it fall where it may. As Richard Rohr put it, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” 
   Jesus is telling his disciples, then and now, “I’ve given you a great truth. I want you to hold the light and the leaven in the middle of the world. As light or leaven it will do its work, and God’s purposes will be achieved.” 
What a relaxed and patient trust Jesus has in God!
   Jesus is quite content, it seems, with such a humble position. He enters the Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday from a place of utter powerlessness, mounted, not on a war horse but a humble donkey. 
His Sermon on the Mount has to do with an alternative understanding and strategy of power. Jesus is leading us to participate in God’s power, which to us feels like powerlessness, but when embraced surrounds us with joy. It is a way that has been left untried, a road that has not been taken.
   The road that Jesus offers may not initially look as appealing, but the farther down the road of faith one travels, the more truth one finds. We discover that humility, unlike power, needs no defense. We realize that doing justice is its own reward. We find that a pure heart is much easier to live with than one filled with jealousy, resentment, and cynicism. Step by step, we learn that following Jesus - even if we are persecuted for it - leads to a joy that nothing can take away. 

As Frost’s poem concludes:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

May you choose the road, the way of Jesus, that has been left untried. And may it make all the difference for you. Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

11-18-18 Sermon on the Mount Series: The Beatitudes Pt 2

11-18-18 Sermon on the Mount Series: The Beatitudes Pt 2

   The artwork of M.C. Escher has amazed, fascinated, and bewildered people for decades due to the seemingly impossible nature of what he depicts. Escher had no mathematical training, but his drawings have been used by and promoted in mathematical circles and periodicals for years. A close look at some of his work only further enhances the bewilderment we experience when we see something we know to be impossible depicted in such a straightforward and seemingly logical way.
   Similarly, when we consider the vastness of the universe, the distance between planets or galaxies can test our ability to even begin to comprehend. 
For example, the distance from the Earth to the Sun, as we learn in elementary school, is 93 million miles. So consider this - if we could drive from the Earth to the Sun in our car, at a constant 75 miles per hour, non-stop 24 hours a day, it would take over 141 years to arrive. 
   Intergalactic travel requires that we think, not in miles, but in light-years. A light year is the distance that light, going at 186,000 miles per second, can travel in one year. One light year equals roughly 5.88 trillion miles. The nearest star to our galaxy is Alpha Centauri, which is 4.3 light years away, or something over 25 trillion miles. At 25,000 mph - the speed of the Space Shuttle - it would take over 114,000 years to travel that distance. So, until we somehow manage to build a spaceship that can travel at the speed of light, we’re not venturing too far from planet Earth any time soon.
   These images, numbers, and distances are nearly incomprehensible to us - so far outside the limits of what we can understand that they almost seem nonsensical to us.  Rev. Matthew Kelley, in thinking about things like these, wrote, “I wonder if hearing Jesus speak had a similar ef­fect on people. In first century Palestine, everybody understood how the world worked. Might made right. They were living under the Roman Empire, af­ter all. The Romans got to rule most of the known world because they had the biggest military, the most money, and were willing to do whatever it took to secure their power base. The amount of resources in the world was finite, so you did what­ever you had to do to make sure you got as big a share as you could. But here’s this preacher from Nazareth telling an entirely different story…Here’s Jesus saying that things like meekness, being persecuted, and being merciful in a merciless world are actually blessings from God!” 
   And Kelley is correct. Jesus, in his first teaching in Matthew’s gospel, is saying things that seem impossible for us to understand, or for some, even to agree with. The poor are blessed? Those who mourn are blessed? The meek, the humble, they are blessed? That seems like logic turned on its head to many people, including many devoted followers of Christ. But it is with this message that Jesus sets the tone for all of his ministry to follow. He’s telling them and us that everything we thought we knew about the world, about wealth, about society, about God - is wrong. Like so many people who would come with earth-shaking ideas after him - that the Earth was round, that the Sun was at the center of our solar system and not the Earth, that human flight was possible - Jesus was pushing back and pushing back hard against the status quo in the world and in the church. 
   As Kelley put it, “Jesus is forcing us to radically rethink the priorities and value systems around which we ori­ent our lives. On the one hand there’s the story told by the empire (the ruling powers of the world) that says that the material realities of this life are the entirety of all creation, so material gain and success are the stick by which we measure individual worth. On the other hand, there’s the story that Jesus is telling, which tells us there is a higher reality than what we can perceive with our five senses, and that this higher reality and the priorities that flow out of its being are to dictate how we live our lives in the world.” It is through that understanding of what Jesus is trying to do here that we approach our three beatitudes for today.

“Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully! - Mt. 5:6 (GNT)

   I chose the Good News Translation today specifically for the wording it used in this beatitude. Not the “happy” part - as I said last week, “blessed” is the better translation to get the idea that we’re talking, not about a feel-good emotion but a state of blessedness that comes from God. No, I chose it because it doesn’t use the word “righteousness.” 
   As Richard Rohr tells us, “This Beatitude is…both spiritual and social. Most Bibles…soften this Beatitude: “hunger and thirst for what is right” or “for righteousness” are the more common faulty translations. But the word in Greek clearly means “justice.” Notice that the concept of justice is used halfway through the Beatitudes and again at the very end. [This repetition] emphasizes an important point: To live a just life in this world is to identify with the longings and hungers of the poor, the meek, and those who weep. This identification and solidarity is in itself a profound form of social justice.”
   When we hear the word “righteousness” we tend to think of “right thinking,” “right acting,” or “right belief,” or even a notion of piety. And that’s not necessarily wrong as it’s just not enough; it’s only a partial understanding of what the word translated as “righteousness” is saying to us. The word definitely is about “justice,” so while “right thinking, acting, and believing,” may also include ideas of justice, it isn’t as explicit as the original language would have us understand. The Good News translation, while not specifically using the word “justice,” does say “Blessed are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires.” And if we go back to the passage from the prophet Micah that we read earlier - what does the Lord require? To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. So this beatitude might be better understood as, Blessed are those who do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, for God will satisfy them fully.
   John Dear, who spent his life in the struggle against the injustice of violence, writes about this Beatitude: “Righteousness [as justice] is not just the private practice of doing good; it sums up the global responsibility of the human community to make sure every human being has what they need, that everyone pursues a fair sense of justice for every other human being, and that everyone lives in right relationship with one another, creation, and God.. . . Jesus instructs us to be passionate for social, economic, and racial justice. That’s the real meaning of the Hebrew word for justice and the Jewish insistence on it. Resist systemic, structured, institutionalized injustice with every bone in your body, with all your might, with your very soul,” he teaches. “Seek justice as if it were your food and drink, your bread and water, as if it were a matter of life and death, which it is. In our relationship to the God of justice and peace, those who give their lives to that struggle, Jesus promises, will be satisfied.”
   So how is it that we hunger and thirst for justice, for the things that God requires of us? We do it by making justice a priority in our lives. Not our idea of retribution as justice, but God’s sacred and global justice of restoration, so that everyone has enough.  There is no justice in this world when there is more than enough food to eat, but people die of starvation. There is no justice in this world when people continue to die of preventible and curable diseases because access to or the cost of medicines or medical care is out of reach to the poor. There is no justice in the world when people sleep on the streets while homes sit boarded up and empty in neighborhoods around the world. 
   “This Beatitude,” Rohr says, “requires us to join a grassroots movement that fights one or two issues of injustice and to get deeply involved in the struggle. 
Since all issues of injustice are connected, fighting one injustice puts us squarely in the struggle against every injustice. As Martin Luther King Jr. said over and over again, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Befriend the victims of systemic injustice, side with them, listen to their stories, let their pain break your heart, [weep with them], join the movements to end injustice, tithe your money to the cause, and commit yourself to the struggle. . . While [it] may take a long time, our nonviolent persistence and truth-telling will eventually win out and bear the good fruit of justice. Truth is on our side; God is on the side of justice. ‘The arc of the moral universe is long,’ King famously said, ‘but it bends toward justice.’” 

Blessed are those who are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them!

   We need to understand that the Beatitudes are not a to-do list on how to get into heaven. Rather, they represent most fully the nature of people who have heaven in them. The beatitudes build upon one another, linking in some way to the ones that came before and that follow. Blessed are those who are merciful follows immediately after Jesus’ blessing of those who seek justice. The linking of justice and mercy in this teaching tells us that if our idea of justice is something less than merciful, we’ve gotten it wrong. 
   The word mercy shows up in the Old and New Testaments approximately 150 times, depending on the translation, with clear differences in how it is used. 
For example, in the book of Joshua, where the people of Israel are moving into the Promised Land, the word is used most often to describe the killing and devastation that Israel visited upon various nations, showing them no mercy. In the Psalms, on the other hand, with only a few exceptions, it is used in pleas to God by David or some other writer for God to have mercy on them. 
Mercy is an exercise, a tool, of power. In fact, the dictionary definition of mercy is: compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.
   Writer, and researcher Brene’ Brown observes that sometimes we fall, or are pushed, into a state of guilt or shame. This is often how we respond to Sin as well. And she offers a clear and easily understood way of thinking about the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt suggests “I’ve done something bad.” Shame insists that “I AM bad, I’m a bad person.”   
   Guilt is usually something that we bring upon ourselves, shame is often heaped on us to the point that we begin to believe it. And I know you’re going to find this hard to believe, but over the centuries the church has been really good at piling on both guilt and shame to people. And one of the shovels it uses to pile on is the idea of our sinful nature - original sin. Now, I’m not going down that rabbit hole of today. Suffice it to say, I don’t ascribe to the school of “original sin,” I’m a disciple of the school of “original blessing.” God created everything, including us. God created us in God’s image and called it good and very good, and I believe it. Do we commit sins? Yes, without a doubt. But do our sins define who we are in the eyes of God? Absolutely not! Why? Because our God is a God of mercy and our sins have been forgiven.
   The angry, judgmental, fire and brimstone, condemning God we read about in the Old Testament does not in any way reflect the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. The Hebrew Bible gives us a record of how ancient peoples thought of gods in general, and how that thinking influenced how they considered the God of Israel in particular. The lenses through which they viewed God were based on ancient polytheistic understandings. The lens through which we view God is Jesus Christ. 
   That Jesus is the fullest revelation of God is at the core of our beliefs as Christians. Whereas in the Hebrew Bible many people believed that they could earn God’s mercy by following rules, laws, Commandments, or by making sacrifices, Jesus tells us that God’s mercy is there for the taking because mercy is who God is.
   For example, in Matthew 9, Jesus is confronted by some legal experts - i.e. people who insisted that the way to God’s mercy was by following the law - because his disciples didn’t fast like John’s did. Jesus tells them, borrowing from Hosea 6:6, “Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. 
  Now after this, Jesus does more teaching, preaching, and healing, and three chapters later, it is the Sabbath and Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field and some of his disciples are eating grains from the field as they walk. Jesus is again confronted, this time by some Pharisees, questioning why they’re breaking the Sabbath law by picking grain. Jesus responds, referring to what he had said to them earlier,  “If you had known what this means, I want mercy and not sacrifice, you wouldn’t have condemned the innocent.”
   The Pharisees are attempting to use shame and guilt in order to force compliance to a system of practice and belief that Jesus flatly rejects. And unfortunately, we continue to see that same thing happening today. 
But that’s NOT what Jesus did - it’s not how Jesus was.
   Another example: Remember the story of the woman who was caught in adultery? Mind you, there was a man involved too but his male privilege and the patriarchal nature of the society spared him the shaming that was piled onto the woman. When addressing her, what did Jesus say? Did he shame her? Did he agree that she should be stoned to death for her sin? No, he told her accusers that any among them who was without sin could cast the first stone, and he told the woman simply to “sin no more.” He showed her mercy. The Pharisees weren’t going to show her mercy - the woman is brought into this thinking she was about to die. When Jesus entered the story, he brought with him God’s hesed, God’s steadfast, covenant love, God’s unrequited mercy.

   Like Father Richard Rohr, I believe with all my heart that mercy and forgiveness are the whole Gospel. He writes, “The experience of forgiveness or mercy is the experience of a magnanimous God who loves out of total gratuitousness. There’s no tit for tat. Grace isn’t for sale. That is the symbolism [behind Jesus kicking over the tables in the temple. One cannot buy God by worthiness, by achievement, or by obeying commandments. 
Salvation is God’s hesed, God’s loving-kindness, a loving-kindness that is ‘forever.’ More than something God does now and then, mercy is who-God-is.” 
   So when Jesus says “Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7) we should understand that he is speaking for and as God, and that God has made a covenant with creation that God will never break. As Rohr reminds us, “The covenant is only broken from our side. God’s love is steadfast. It is written in the divine image within us. We are the ones who instead clutch at our sins and beat ourselves [up] instead of surrendering to the divine mercy. Refusing to [accept forgiveness] is a form of pride. It’s saying, ‘I’m better than mercy. I’m only going to accept it when I’m worthy and can preserve my so-called self-esteem.’ Only the humble person, [the meek,] the little one, can live in and after mercy.” As Jesus said earlier; Blessed are the meek, the humble, for they shall inherit the earth. 
   Forgiveness is God’s ultimate entry into powerlessness. Withholding forgiveness is a form of power over another person, a way to manipulate, shame, control, and diminish another. God in Jesus never does this; God in Jesus refuses all such power. If Jesus is the revelation of the true nature of God then we are forced to conclude that God is very humble. This God never seems to hold rightful claims against us. Denying what we often think or have been taught was the proper role or nature of God, this God, as Isaiah tells us, “has thrust all our sins behind his back” (Isa. 38:17)
   When asked by his disciples how often they should forgive someone, suggesting seven times should be sufficient, Jesus replies “seventy times seven.” Seven representing wholeness or completeness, Jesus says forgive completely, fully, wholey, as often as it takes, with no limit, just as you are forgiven. 
   Rohr concludes, “We do not attain anything by our own holiness but by ten thousand surrenders to mercy. A lifetime of received forgiveness allows us to become mercy: That’s the Beatitude. We become what we receive, what we allow into our hearts. Mercy becomes our energy and purpose. Perhaps we’re finally enlightened and free when we can both receive it and give it away—without payment or punishment.”

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

   When we move further into the Sermon on the Mount we find Jesus giving example after example of what he was talking about in the Beatitudes. 
He makes the point several times that what is on our hearts, more than anything else, decides how we are with other people, that our inner attitudes and states of mind are the real source of our problems with people.
   And Jesus is trying in these verses to get us to understand that we need to root out the heart of the problem at our deepest interior levels, rather than just going through the motions of doing the right things on the surface.  As Rohr points out, “Jesus says not only that we must not kill, but that we must not even harbor hateful anger. He clearly begins with the necessity of a ‘pure heart’ (Matthew 5:8) and knows that the outer behavior will follow. Too often we force the outward response, while the inward intent remains like a cancer. 
If we walk around with hatred all day, morally we’re just as much killers as the one who pulls the trigger. We can’t live that way and not be destroyed from within. Yet, for some reason, many Christians have thought it acceptable to think and feel hatred, negativity, and fear. The evil and genocide of both [World Wars] were the result of decades of negative, resentful, and paranoid thinking and feeling among even good Christian people.”
   In considering this beatitude, I’m reminded of the old adage, “you are what you eat.” I guess I’m more pizza and french fries than I am kale salad and roasted fish. But we get what this means to our life and health. 
   Jesus is telling us we are what we think. He warns against harboring hateful anger against others, or calling people names like “fool” or “idiot,” because if we spend our days thinking of other people in that way, we’re living out of death, not life. If that’s what we think and feel, that’s what we will be - a death energy instead of the life force of salt and light that Jesus calls us to be as his disciples. Jesus warns us that we must stay connected to the love of God, the love that IS God, that we cannot afford even an inner disconnection from God’s love, because how we live in our hearts is the real and deepest truth about who and how we are in our lives.  
   James Howell equates “purity in heart” to remaining focused on the “one true thing.” So many times, he suggests, we allow ourselves to become scattered and distracted by so many different things - feelings, ideas, notions, emotions - and that we lose our focus on the one true things that matters and that will keep us moving in the right direction - the love of God. If we can remain focused on the “one true thing” - God’s love and how we are to live into that -  “we would have our hearts purified, for we are a mess of misunderstandings about God, and therefore we are a mess of misunderstandings about ourselves [and others.]”
   In the aftermath of being confronted by Nathan about his relationship with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, King David, writes what would become known as Psalm 51 - a psalm of lament, and confession, and grief, in which, in the midst of his brokenness, shame, guilt, he asks God to Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.(Psalm 51)
   We can’t risk walking around with a negative, resentful, gossipy, angry, judgmental, critical mind, because when we do we aren’t being true to who and how God created us to be. We won’t be usable instruments for God. 
That’s why Jesus commanded  us to love. 
It’s that urgent. It’s that critical.
   Now, this is hard stuff. While we tend to make the Beatitudes sing-songy and trite, these are radically difficult teachings from Jesus and he hits us with them right out of the gate. Like thinking about the vastness of space, or considering the artwork of M.C. Escher, they go far beyond what we’re used to, they transcend the norms of what culture and society tell us is acceptable. 
They truly challenge us. In fact, they’re so hard that many people, including many who call themselves Christians, reject them. The great theologian G.K. Chesterton famously said of this phenomena, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Take a moment to consider that: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” 
   You know, Escher’s art work is great because you can’t just glance at it for a moment and get it. You have to stare at it for a long time, wondering if your eyes are playing tricks on you, and marveling at the imagina­tion it must take to even think of things like this, which are impossible in real life. His art forces us to stretch the bounds of our understanding and reconsider what really is possible. 
  And when we stare into the night sky, our perspective from this single blue dot in our galaxy, fools us into thinking that all of those lights in the sky are as close the freckles on a child’s nose, when in fact the distances between them are, at this point at least, incomprehensible and insurmountable.
   The teachings of Jesus are much the same for us. They strike us as so different than what our society and culture have taught for so many years, that we’re compelled to stare at them, wondering if our eyes, our ears, even our mind is playing a trick on us. But unlike Escher’s artwork, Jesus’ teachings are not impossible. They’ve just been found difficult, and left untried. What kind of world could we have if those who claimed to follow this teacher, this Son of God, actually tried to live out what he taught? Hmm. Jesus called that world the “Reign of God.” May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

11-11-18 Sermon on the Mount Series: The Beatitudes - Part 1

11-11-18 Sermon on the Mount Series: The Beatitudes - Part 1

   The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew’s Gospel.  The similarly named but theologically different “Sermon on the Plain” is found in the Gospel of Luke. Both are believed by scholars to reflect not so much a specific event in the ministry of Jesus, although that is certainly possible, but a representation or composite rendering of the type and style of teaching that Jesus most often used.  We’ll be looking at Matthew’s account over the next three Sundays. 
   And in the way of a reminder and to put this passage into the proper context, Matthew’s Gospel opens with a genealogy of Jesus that traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham, the patriarch of Israel, in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. Following that segment is the beloved story of Jesus’ birth that includes the magi (it is Luke that includes the shepherds), followed by the family’s harrowing escape to and return from Egypt, the story of the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus’ subsequent baptism by John, Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, and finally the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It is then that Jesus calls his disciples and immediately begins healing people. 
All of what I just laid out for you takes place in the first four chapters of the gospel. The very next thing that occurs, then, is what is called the Sermon on the Mount. 
   Because Matthew wants us to think of Jesus as the new Moses, he frames his telling of this and other stories in such a way that they reflect images of the Exodus stories of Moses and the Israelites. Just as the Israelites had spent forty years in the wilderness, Jesus has just come from forty days there. 
As Moses went up Mount Sinai to learn from God, so Jesus is goes up a mountain to teach people about God. The Sermon on the Mount is found in chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel, and includes some of Jesus’ most well-known teachings, including what are known as the Beatitudes.
   One of the first things we notice about the Beatitudes (the blessings) when we read or hear them read, is that some translations begin with the word “blessed,” while others use the word “happy.” While we typically use the Common English Bible, which uses “happy,” in our worship scriptures for this message I chose the NRSV because it uses the word “blessed,” and here’s why. The word translated as either “happy” or “blessed,” is in Latin, beati, or from the Greek in which the New Testament was written, makarios. In our modern society we think of the word “happy” as being an emotion, perhaps similar to joy, and thought of as being opposite to “sad.” We sing “Happy Birthday,” not “Blessed Birthday” to someone celebrating another trip around the sun. Things or events make us happy: receiving good news, seeing someone we haven’t seen in a while, grandkids, a favorite meal, getting out of church early! But “blessed” suggests a meaning that goes beyond mere emotion. It’s about God’s favor towards certain types of people that is better expressed, I believe, by the word “blessed” rather than “happy.”
   Now, every culture has its own definition or idea of what success is or what it means to be successful. In Jesus’ time, it would probably include freedom from domineering rulers, oppressive tax collectors, and capricious soldiers. It might well include the respect that comes from savvy negotiating skills in the marketplace. It would also probably, then and now, include the ability to provide for one’s family, their health and prosperity.
   Likewise, every culture promotes some vision of what happiness looks like that would look very similar to how we described success. In addition, our society has long promoted the goals of accumulating wealth and amassing power. Individual freedom is high on the list, as is the respect of one’s friends, neighbors and colleagues. Popularity, recognition, and prestige are also considered worthwhile pursuits. And we find this across our culture. The political debates and commercials that have, thankfully, ended for a brief time, assume that disparagement, insult, and condescension are appropriate tools to use in the pursuit of happiness -especially if happiness is defined as acquiring power, prestige, or position. Reality television runs on the premise that everyone wants to have his or her fifteen minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol famousle put it. 
Men’s magazines promote virility, ambition, and the need for rock-hard abs; women’s magazines promote an idea of perfect beauty and ideal relationships - and rock-hard abs; trade magazines promote financial success; sports magazines - strategies to win.

   And because that is what we see and hear 24/7 in the world today, the Beatitudes, Jesus’ list of things that either bring happiness or represent the signs of God’s blessedness, is jarring to us. 

There are eight beatitudes given in Matthew and today we’ll look at the first three:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

   Theologian Christine Chakoian points out the contrast we find between what our culture tells us and what Jesus tells us, writing,
  • “Our culture says, Happy are those with great prospects for marriage, and work, [and make money, and save for retirement,] because they will be successful.
    •   Jesus says, Happy, or blessed, are the destitute, the poor, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
  • “Our culture says, Happy are those whose loved ones enjoy good health, because they will not worry.
    • But Jesus says, Happy or blessed are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
  • “And our culture says, Happy are those who enjoy power, because they will be in charge.
    • “But Jesus says, Happy, or blessed, are people who are humble, the meek, because they will inherit the earth.
   So we see that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proposes a definition of happiness, or blessedness, that is wildly different from anything we’re accustomed to hearing. Our culture, and cultures the world over to be frank, hold that happiness, true happiness, is found in things, in material goods, or in the acquisition of power, prestige and popularity. To be happy, they suggest, you must own this device, wear these clothes, drink this soft drink, drive that make of car, live in this up and coming neighborhood, be on that social media platform, have X number of friends, likes, retweets, or whatever. And it’s all so flighty, so conditional, so temporary, so artificial. 
  • Is it any wonder that so many people are so unhappy?
  • Is it any wonder that more and more people are in debt up to their eyeballs? 
  • Is it any wonder that so many people turn to opioids, alcohol, sex, gambling, or something else to escape? 
  • Is it any wonder that so many people are dying at the hands of men with guns suffering from PTSD or mental illness, or have otherwise come to feel like social outcasts? 
   In saying that, Blessed are the Poor in spirit (or just the poor), Jesus isn’t glamorizing poverty. “But,” as James Howell points out, “the spiritual advantage, the humility, the empty, available space, the lack of stuff to cling to, the absence of false buttresses to your self-worth” are worth being explored. 
Similarly, Jim Forest said, “Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be.” And Gustavo GutiĆ©rrez suggests that “knowing our impoverishment, our brokenness, is the opening to life from God,” what he calls a “spiritual childhood.”
   Father Richard Rohr calls the Sermon on the Mount “the very blueprint for Christian lifestyle,” and most scholars see it as the best summary of Jesus’ teaching. 

But Rohr says “we can’t understand this wisdom with the rational, dualistic mind; in fact, we will largely misunderstand it while thinking that we got it on the first try. …Jesus taught an alternative wisdom—the Reign of God—which overturns the conventional and common trust in power, possessions, and personal prestige. To understand the Sermon on the Mount, we must approach it with an open heart and a beginner’s mind, ready to have these normal cultural beliefs and preferences changed. Most people were never told this and tried to fit the Gospel into their existing cultural agenda or point of view.
And Rohr points out that Jesus’ opening line… is [the] key to everything that follows: How blessed (or “happy”) are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. —Matthew 5:3
   “Poor in spirit,” he writes, “means an inner emptiness and humility, a beginner’s mind, and to live without a need for personal righteousness or reputation. It is the ‘powerlessness’ suggested in Alcoholics Anonymous’ First Step. The Greek word Matthew uses for ‘poor’ is ptochoi, which literally means, ‘the very empty ones, those who are crouching.’ They are the bent-over beggars, the little nobodies of this world who have nothing left, who aren’t self-preoccupied or full of themselves in any way. Jesus is saying: ‘Happy are you, [you are blessed, because] you are the freest of all.”
   And in making this point Rohr is suggesting that “the higher and more visible you are in any system, the more trapped you are inside it. The freest position is the one [he] call[s] ‘on the edge of the inside’—neither a ‘company man’ nor a rebel…. The price of both holding power and speaking truth to power can be very great. You ricochet between being offensive and being defensive, neither of which is a…solid position. Further, you’re forced to either defend and maintain the status quo to protect yourself and the group or to waste time reacting against it.”
   “The ‘poor in spirit’ don’t have to play these competitive games; they’re not preoccupied with winning, which is the primary philosophy in the U.S. today. Jesus is recommending a [radical] social reordering, quite different from common practice. Notice also how he uses present tense: ‘the Kingdom of God is theirs.’ He doesn’t say ‘will be theirs.’ That tells us that God’s Reign isn’t later; it’s now. It’s not something we have to wait for in some “sweet by and by,” but can experience now if we open ourselves to it. You are only free,” Rohr suggests, “when you have nothing to protect and nothing you need to prove or defend. But as Eknath Easwaran suggests, “the joy we experience in these moments of [freedom], or self-forgetting is our true nature, our native state. To regain it, we have simply to empty ourselves of what hides this joy: that is, to stop dwelling on ourselves, [our image, our possessions, our pride, our power, our position].” As we forget [this] false, floating self, we rediscover our [true] and anchored self—which is not very needy at all.”

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

   In Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book, Lament for a Son, he reflects on the death of his 23-year-old son with immense heart and wisdom. Over time, his grief lightened a little, but he writes, “…it has not disappeared” (and never will).
 That is as it should be. If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over. Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved… Every lament is a love-song.”
   In writing about this second Beatitude, Richard Rohr says, “Jesus praises the weeping class, those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to extract themselves from it. That is why Jesus says the rich man can’t see the Kingdom. The rich one spends life trying to make tears unnecessary and, ultimately, impossible…” But he goes on, “Tears are therapeutic and healing, both emotionally and physically. Crying helps the body shed stress hormones and stimulates endorphins. Weeping is a natural and essential part of being human. 
   The Early Church diverged on this idea though. The Western Church tended to filter the Gospel through the head; the theology of the Eastern Church was much more localized in the body. They actually proposed that tears be a sacrament in the Church, one saint going so far as to say until you’ve cried you don’t know God.
   Rohr writes, “Most of us think we know God—and ourselves—through ideas. Yet [physical], embodied theology acknowledges that perhaps weeping will allow us to know God much better than ideas. In this Beatitude, Jesus praises those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to remove or isolate themselves from its suffering. Jesus describes those who grieve as feeling the pain of the world. Weeping over our sin and the sin of the world is an entirely different response than self-hatred or the judgment or hatred of others. Grief allows one to carry the dark side, to bear the pain of the world without looking for perpetrators or victims, but instead recognizing the tragic reality that both sides are caught up in. Tears from God are always for everyone, for our universal exile from home. ‘It is Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted’ as Jeremiah 31:15 evokes.
   Yet in our society tears seem insufficient, even a sign of weakness, and certainly present a stumbling block to some men; crying will make us look vulnerable. So many men hold back tears. Is it [any] wonder men don’t live as long as women, on average? Perhaps we need to teach and remind ourselves how to cry well, because in our culture today, we’ve banished tears and heartfelt grief to the trash bin, and replaced it with the cry emoji.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth

   Try putting “meekness” on you resume and see how far that gets you in the world today. We hear “meek” and equate it with “weak,” or we think “mild,” or “mousey,” or “shy.” Meekness is rarely, if ever, considered a compliment or an asset is it? It’s not something we typically are encouraged to strive for. 
   What Jesus means, though, is humility, or being humble. Now, these, too, are not qualities that are promoted broadly in our culture which is all about standing out, making our place, and getting our fair share, because humbleness or humility, is about powerlessness. It is the powerless, the humble, the teachable, the small and unlikely who are blessed by Jesus, because with God blessedness is not about skills and strengths, but vulnerability and brokenness. 

   And Jesus did more than just tell this story, he lived it out. The Gospels recount story after story of how Jesus spent his time primarily with those who were considered outcasts by the world, and even by the religious system. He taught, ate with, and healed all people, regardless of where they fell in the societal class structure. Jesus forced the people of his day—and us as well—to consider a different story, a differ­ent understanding of what was really possible, and to consider that all they had ever known, or could know, might not be all there is. He shocks those who listen to him when he tells them that it is they, the powerless, downcast, outcast, the rejects of the world who will inherit the earth, not the rich and powerful, or the bold and beautiful. The meek, the humble, he declares, are the heirs of all there is. 

   So in these opening verses of the most famous sermon ever preached, Jesus is saying, for all intents and purposes, forget everything you thought you knew. 
He’s saying that black is white, up is down, and in is out. THAT, he says, is what the Reign of God is like. 
Those things that are routinely taken for granted, the deep logic by which we often assume the world works is not, in fact, the way of God. Thinking ahead to when Jesus says, “You have heard it said…but I tell you this…” Jesus is in effect saying here, 
   “No. This is not how the world actually works, no matter how things may seem. On the contrary, as God has ordained the deep, emerging order of creation, the truly blessed are ultimately and actually the gentle, the merciful, the poor, the grieving, and those at the bottom of society’s ladder. It appears to be otherwise - I understand - and that is precisely why I am beginning this way, the better to dispel the commonplace illusions, to clarify reality, to declare the dawning Reign of God, and to help us find our bearings as we live into God’s future.”
   So, as we continue to explore this earth-shaking first teaching of Jesus, may his words shape our lives, our thoughts, and our actions as we take them into the world with us this week -  in practice and in thought. And may Jesus’ words help us to find freedom from those things - the ideologies, the images that hold us captive - that we might find companionship and freedom with God in the humble smallness of a life of embodied faith. Amen.