Transfiguration, Transformation, Hope

My deepest thanks to D. Mark Davis and the Rev. Dr. Delmar Chilton for their insights and scholarship in writing this week’s sermon.

Photo Credit: Cubster Photography

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Six days later…” Sometimes the Lectionary Fairies seem to drop us into the middle of a conversation with these readings, and sometimes they seem to cut off important events and information that follow. We can’t blame them, really; especially with this Transfiguration Sunday reading, if we included everything in this reading, we’d be spending a good portion of the day reading, and still not get to everything.

Six days earlier, the Pharisees had demanded a sign from Jesus, and he’d refused: “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Later, Jesus had turned to his disciples and asked what people were saying about him. There had been predictable answers: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But when he challenged them, “Who do you say that I am,” one guy got it right — without the signs that the Pharisees demanded, based just on his experience with Jesus, Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus praised Peter for knowing this — and yes, when Peter later tries to correct Jesus when he talks of his coming suffering and death, he has to turn around and call Peter “Satan,” but still, he knew who Jesus was even while not understanding all that meant.

So six days later, Jesus leads Peter and James and John up a mountain, and they are witness to the Transfiguration. Jesus is changed before their eyes — his face changes, he shines with dazzling light like the sun, and Moses and Elijah appear and have a conversation with him!

It’s difficult to convey how singular and overwhelming the experience of the Transfiguration was to those three disciples. We live in a world where CGI and PhotoShop can make miracles with a few clicks of the mouse, where creative video editing can make people say things they never intended, and after all, don’t we hear the account of the Transfiguration every year right before Lent starts?

But what’s happening here is the ultimate statement of who Jesus is — He glows with the glory of God, the light of who he really is. In conversing with Moses and Elijah, he is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, as he said in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:17. And the voice of God the Father confirms that Jesus is in fact His beloved and delightful Son.

That’s what it is — but what do we do with it?

I don’t mean, “how do we interpret it;” that’s fun, and it would more than fill out a sermon, but I mean, “how does this event compel us to deepen our relationship with the living God and thus interact with God’s creation in our day to day lives?”

What do we do with it?

We can put it on a special pedestal, make it a ritual — like having a day called “Transfiguration Sunday” in the liturgical calendar, oops? OK, nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, and it’s a normal reaction. That’s what Peter wanted to do when he spoke up, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He wanted to preserve the event, to somehow convey how singular and wonderful the experience of this vision was.

But that wasn’t enough. It isn’t a mistake, or for comic timing, that Matthew’s Gospel has the very voice of God interrupting Peter in mid sentence: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that seeing Jesus glow with holy, blinding light doesn’t floor the disciples, but the voice from the cloud does? Malachi 3:2 says, “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” But I digress.

There’s an interesting use of words in the Greek here: Where we read words like “appeared” and “saw,” it’s the word “horáō.” It literally means “see,” but it has a metaphorical use, “to see with the mind,” to “spiritually see” or to perceive with inward spiritual perception. That’s the word used throughout when Peter and James and John see Jesus shine, when they see Moses and Elijah, when they see the bright cloud that brings the voice of God… It is “horáō,” a vision, a theophany, an appearance of God.

and “horáō” is also the word that Matthew uses when all the light fades, when Moses and Elijah and the voice of God are gone, and Jesus touches the terrified, prostrate disciples. They look up and horáō, see, Jesus alone.

Jesus himself said “The Father and I are one,” and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” What the disciples see when they lift their eyes is Jesus, the very appearance of God. When we look to Jesus, we, too, see God.

What do we do with it?

Another interpretation of the Greek word for “transfiguration” is “transformation,” and it’s used in a couple more places in the New Testament: Romans 12:2, where we read “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” and also 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

If we take the time to reflect, most of us can find ways we have been changed, transfigured, by the presence of the holy in our lives. For most of us,  it’s not been a dramatic change – at least not as dramatic as Jesus shining as bright as the sun, or even Peter’s change from cowardly denier of Jesus on the night of his trial to brave preacher of Christ on the day of Pentecost; but we have all changed.

Yes we have been “transfigured,” by having Christ in our lives. We are less selfish and more generous than we used to be. Less judgmental and more tolerant, less anxious and more trusting, we do fewer bad things and more good things. If we look back at the long story of our personal relationship with God, we will find that we have been “transfigured” by God; smoothed out, reshaped, and formed more and more into the image of Christ.

What do we do with it?

Wait, isn’t that enough? We’re changed, we’re better people, we are nicer! Everyone lives happily ever after!

Is that enough? Well, was that enough for Jesus? Was the Transfiguration the end of his journey?

I know, “duh.” But this is an important point, because whenever we have “mountaintop experiences,” the tendency is always to try and preserve that moment, to hold ourselves in that moment. But God always has more for us — there is always a reason to move on from the mountaintop.

We move from this time of Epiphany, from this Transfiguration, into the season of Lent. Not may days after Jesus glows with holy light on this mountaintop, he will struggle up the hill of Golgatha. Clothes that shone with the glory of God will be objects that soldiers gamble for. Rather than being joined by two great heroes from ancient history, Jesus’ companions on the cross will be two common criminals. In place of the three male disciples on the mountain, three women will witness Jesus’ suffering on the cross. The dazzling light of Transfiguration will be replaced with a darkness that falls over the whole land. The one who basked in God’s presence will cry out, ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’ And while on the mountain God confesses Jesus as God’s son as a voice sounds forth, ‘this is my son, the beloved,’ at the Cross it is left to a Roman centurion to blurt out, ‘truly this man was God’s son.’

And yes, thank God, three days later Jesus was raised from the dead. The point is that the mountaintop, the glory, wasn’t all there is to the story; Jesus had a purpose in this world and he immediately went forth from the mountaintop to fulfill that purpose.

In fact, when we read on from this passage in Matthew, we find this:

When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

You see? I skipped the part where he was teaching Peter, James and John even as they walked down the mountain, the point is that Jesus went right back to doing what he came to do: seek and save the lost.

That’s what he did with it.

Jesus was transfigured by the love of his Father, who delighted in him, and he was transfigured for a purpose. We are transformed through the love of God in the risen Christ, through the renewing of the Holy Spirit, for a purpose.

That purpose is, first, To grow in relationship with our loving Creator, to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, to be transformed from glory to glory into the image of Jesus Christ. Then as transformed ambassadors for Christ, residents of the now-and coming Kingdom of God, we are to work to transform the world.

That’s what we do with it.

Poverty is still rampant. Government is rife with corruption. People the world over die every day from a lack of food and clean water, people die of easily preventable diseases, and even more despicable, far more shameful: children in our own city go to bed hungry, and far too many without a roof over their heads, every night. Thirty-one percent of Birmingham’s residents live in poverty, that’s nearly one in three!

I know I talk about that a lot, I’ve probably said that Alabama is the fourth poorest state in the nation a dozen times in sermons, but that’s because it is important. We cannot tell people that God loves them without also showing them that God loves them. We cannot speak the words of God without speaking words of justice and mercy and truth to the powers of this world. Without action, without love, we are clanging bells and tinkling cymbals.

Maybe I can’t feed a hundred people. Maybe I can feed just one. That’s OK. That’s what I do with it.

That’s what we do with it.

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Living More Deeply

This is a rehash an updated version of a sermon I gave in 2011. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Photo Credit – Katie Johnston

Matthew 5:38-48

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

And, let’s admit it, it’s a whopper of a word. This passage, along with the one we read last week, is part of what scholars have called the “antitheses” of Jesus. The idea is that Jesus is placing ideas over against each other: “You have heard it said…” on one hand, versus “But I say to you…” on the other hand. Which is a good conversation starter, I suppose. But if Jesus is indeed not replacing, but fulfilling the Law, these aren’t over-and-against teachings. Rather, Jesus is challenging his listeners, which no doubt included Pharisees and scribes, to a more personal and authentic interpretation of the Law, a deeper way of living.

And it’s important to emphasize the word “personal.” Today’s reading has a long and shameful history of being used as a hammer to beat people into submission — forcing oppressed people to continue in their suffering, forcing abused spouses to remain in marriage and abused children to remain silent against their abusers. I think anytime we use Scripture as a lens through which we view others, without first having used it to thoroughly and unflinchingly examine ourselves, we become no better than the worst of the Pharisees and religious elite that Jesus denounced in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew. I’ve mentioned that passage three weeks in a row, now, because, alongside these readings from the Sermon on the Mount, it is such an important tool of self-examination for we American Christians in this day and age.

So yes, these verses are, first and foremost, personal. I am not to resist, I am to turn the other cheek, I am to give my cloak also, I am to give and to lend without respect. I am to love, I am to pray, I am to greet. I am to be complete, just like my Creator. If this is my focus, then this whole business of deciding how someone else should act in the face of evil and oppression — especially evil and oppression that benefits me either directly or indirectly — falls by the wayside, because who has that kind of time? Taking care of my own shortcomings in these areas is a full-time, lifelong task.

That being said, there’s a fascinating way of looking at Jesus’ teachings in their historical context as a primer on nonviolent resistance; teachings which have inspired generations of people (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and so on) to stand powerfully in the face of oppression and tyranny. What on their face seem like simply passive actions — turning the cheek, giving coat and cloak — could be seen as powerful ways of robbing the oppressor of their power. Here’s what I mean:

“…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” according to some of the scholars I’ve read, Jesus is describing an act done by masters to their servants and slaves. It was always done by hitting with the back of the right hand across the right cheek, and was not at all an act of random violence or of fighting among friends or enemies. The blow was about asserting status, rank, privilege and power over the other. It had to be done properly, to demonstrate that the master had control of the slave. The slave must obediently stand facing you without external coercion. You must strike only the right cheek; and only with the back of the right hand.  If this is correct, then by turning the left cheek, the slave asserts power over the master, rendering him powerless to continue the all-too-properly-executed violence, and does so without lifting a finger.

“…if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…” Peasants, which is to sa, the vast majority of people in Roman-ruled Judea, did not sue one another, so this, too is about the privileged abusing the poor. Since peasants quite literally only owned the clothes on their backs, being sued for your coat was being sued for the only thing you owned – except for your underwear… which, in those days, was a “cloak!” Perhaps the idea is to publicly expose the shame which allows someone with wealth and privilege to take away the only thing a poor person owns! So, y’know, give him your underwear, too. Let him explain why you are naked.

“…and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile…” Soldiers were allowed to conscript civilians to carry their packs, but only for a Roman mile. This was no minor inconvenience for anyone who worked and fed their family day by day. Walking a mile with a heavy pack and then back again would mean missing the chance to be chosen for that day’s labor, and therefore that day’s food for the family. Going that extra mile as a voluntary act took back the initiative from the soldier, not only exposing to the soldier the injustice he was committing, but saving some other poor laborer from missing a day’s work as well.

If I may be so bold as to quote the Dalai Lama: “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.”

In any case, for us, I tend to agree with Mark Davis that the central focus of this particular reading is this verse: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” First off, “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” as a teaching is not found anywhere in Scripture. Rather, we are taught that whenever we attempt to define who our “neighbor” is, we draw the circle too tightly.

Yes, we are told to love our neighbor, but did you know that, right within the Law of Moses, the Book of Leviticus, there is this command? “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Chapter nineteen, verse thirty-four, if you want to look it up.

It is, after all, in the very nature of God, the very nature of nature, if you will, that the sun rises with no respect to whether one is good or evil; the rain falls with no respect to whether one is just or unjust. Not only does this go against the superstition that God sends natural disasters in order to punish entire countries or communities for the sins of their ancestors, which is something we’ve heard time and again from certain TV preachers, but more importantly it goes against the idea of loving only your neighbor and always hating your enemy, and sets the stage for the following verses: in the same manner that God gives sun and rain indiscriminately, we must give of our love without limit, we must welcome without qualification… and on this basis, the preceding verses come into focus for us: non-retaliation, going the extra mile, and so on.

If I may play off of a quote by C.S. Lewis, everyone agrees that loving enemies and forgiving the people who hurt us are great ideas. Most everyone agrees on that right up until the moment they are confronted with an actual or perceived enemy and with a real-life hurt inflicted on them by someone.

There are very loud and well-known voices which are adept at telling us who our enemies are, at demanding we fear, hate and despise this group or that group, that “those people” are bad and “we” are good.

When we buy into those voices, when we subscribe to the politics of scarcity and fear, then all of a sudden this “turn the other cheek” stuff starts to look like fine advice for other people, for people who never had to face enemies and circumstances anywhere near as raw and complex as what we are currently facing. No one before has faced enemies as pernicious and cruel as our enemies. They might have turned the other cheek, but we must hit back before we get destroyed. Others may have been loving and forgiving, but we are called on to use the good sense God gave us and be wary and defensive.

Living like this is living small. And that last thing that Jesus says in our reading today, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” that calls us to so much more.

Wait, wait. “Perfect?” I can’t even pour coffee from the pot in the back without dripping, and I’m up here talking about being “perfect?”

That word, “teleios,” could mean complete, as in brought to its end, finished, or wanting nothing necessary to completeness, and it could mean mature, full grown, adult. The good news is that, given the context, the most obvious meaning is the latter, “mature.”

But let’s not set that first idea aside yet. Because what Jesus has been talking about with these so-called “antitheses,” this idea of carrying “you have heard it said” to a more complete and challenging place, is all about living more deeply. Jesus calls us to the maturity that brings depth, but he also calls us to a journey towards perfection, toward God’s perfection. Toward restoration. Yes, restoration between ourselves and our fellow Christians, even ourselves and our fellow human beings, but it cannot end there. That makes Christianity little more than a social activism club.

No, to live more deeply, to walk this faith journey in the footsteps of Christ and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is to live in the Kingdom of Heaven in the here and now: to strive to reconcile all of humanity with their loving Creator.

To live more deeply is to love extravagantly – not the emotional, internal, felt “love,” but the difficult, dirty, inconvenient love — love lived as a verb, the feeding, clothing, visiting and welcoming of Matthew 25:31-46. The kind of love that cares, in tangible, active ways, even for people we don’t particularly like. The kind of love that cares, in tangible, active ways, even for people who kind of scare us.

We need a whole-hearted, whole-souled commitment to God’s creation and every person in it. We need, in short, the eyes of God – eyes that scan the horizon not first for what we can get out of life but what we can contribute to life for the peace and flourishing joy of all. This is living more deeply.

Laundry Lists and Love – God Cares!

This is, I confess, very much a rehashing of an old sermon. I don’t enjoy doing this sort of thing, but I got a bit overwhelmed with meetings (I co-chair SURJ-Birmingham, Alabama) and training sessions. Heck, even my webcartoon will run late this week.

As my friend Katie Mulligan pointed out, as a preacher with a pulpit, I’m a paid protester. And I’ll go further: if you’re in the kingdom of heaven, you are, too (Matthew 6:20). Now, more than ever, we need to be busy at our jobs.

Photo Credit: MPACT/Black Lives Matter Birmingham Chapter/SURJ – Birmingham Alabama Community Organizing Training, Cara McClure

MATTHEW 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Oh, goody, new rules. Juuuuuust peachy. And a laundry list of stuff, too… murder, anger, adultery, divorce, making oaths… and the punishments are over-the-top! For cryin’ out loud, being condemned to Hell for calling someone a fool? Mutilating our body to refrain from committing sin? No wonder these fall in to the category that’s called “the hard sayings of Jesus.”

I think it’s safe to say that most of us don’t make it our life’s work to follow these “hard sayings” to the letter. Oh, some Christians use them, sure – quoting them to condemn someone. Others of us read them and feel really good about the ones that aren’t currently a problem for us. To our shame, some churches have used the part about divorce to shame women into staying in abusive relationships.

But follow them? Well, not so much. We get angry, for example. I know I do, anyway. Divorce is common nowadays, and in our lawsuit-crazed society we swear oaths verbally and with our signatures all the time. Letting our “yes be yes” kind of pales when we sign an arbitration agreement. I don’t know of anyone who has come to the Lord’s Supper, then before taking part has left to go make up with someone they’d had a quarrel with. It has probably happened, sure, but I have never seen it. I don’t know of anyone who has poked their own eye out or cut off their own hand to refrain from committing sin.

As a list of rules – I am gonna go ahead and just say it – these are unreasonable. If I have to treat this passage as a checklist of things I cannot ever under any circumstances do, or else, I give up. I can’t do it.

And let me go further: If we treat the Scriptures as a list of rules and regulations, a law-book, a Constitution… we will all fail. Maybe not every time, on ever point, no. I may do OK not lusting after my neighbor’s wife, but I get irritated if I am walking behind someone slower than me in the store! And just ask my wife about what I call people when I watch the news. And I know I’m not alone in this.

It’s depressing, isn’t it? Are we just left with beating each other up with “clobber verses” and feeling inadequate?

No. Because I think the point of what Jesus is saying here goes deeper than keeping rules, following the laundry list. Look at what Jesus is actually saying here, look at the focal point of his “hard sayings.”

“…If you are angry with…” “…if you insult…” “…if you say…” are some of the phrases Jesus uses to start off this reading, and he does it over against murder. Jesus seems to say anger is worse, or at least on a level, with killing… and to be sure, someone would have to be pretty angry with someone to kill them, you’d think. But I want to suggest to you that this isn’t even about antecedents to murder.

Jesus is talking about how we think about – how we treat – one another. It ain’t about rules. It’s about relationships. God cares about our relationships. That is the thread that weaves this seemingly stream-of-consciousness, hard to take reading together. It isn’t random rules and threats of punishment. It’s about how we relate to one another, and through that, how and if we relate to God.

This changes everything, doesn’t it? Suddenly, God is not the Unmoved Mover of the philosophers. Suddenly, God does not see us as playthings. Suddenly, God is not completely disinterested in God’s creation. Suddenly, God is more than simply a spiritual director or a dispenser of divine karma.

Suddenly, God cares. God cares about us, and God cares about our relationships.

Yes, sometimes people say or even do bad things, and our natural reaction is anger, our natural tendency is to strike back somehow. We have a right to! But at least in the Christian community, that right is less important than the responsibility, on both the part of the offender and the offended, to reconcile.

God cares about us. God cares about our relationships.

Think about it – when we hold a grudge, the person we are mad at is living in our head rent-free! It takes our heart and mind away from the things that matter, it causes stress, and stress can kill us. Better to forgive, even if we cannot safely forgive face-to-face. Forgiveness isn’t about letting someone off the hook, remember, it is about allowing ourselves to move on and grow out of that and into our life in Christ.

And notice how the burden of reconciliation isn’t just on the one offended – Jesus says that, whenever we realize we have offended someone, even if we are in the middle of church, even gathered around the Lord’s Table, we must go and fix it right then, it is that important. Right relationships with one another both speak volumes to those outside of the faith looking in on us, and those relationships help to strengthen our individual and corporate walk with God.

Believe it or not, this dovetails in perfectly with Jesus’ words about adultery, lust, and divorce, because if we value other people deeply enough to care about right relationships, one thing we are careful not to do is objectify other people – remove their humanity, define them as a body part or value them only for what they can do for us. We cannot treat people as possessions and truly value relationships with one another or with God.

God cares about us. God cares about how we care for and about others.

Now, treating people, specifically women, as a possession was exactly what Jesus was talking about when he was speaking of divorce. In Jesus’ time, remember, women had no rights, no identity of their own. Rabbinic tradition held that a man could write up a “bill of divorcement” and leave his wife if she displeased him in any way. Women couldn’t own property, had no legal recourse, could not work… for cryin’ out loud, even the Ten Commandments lists “your neighbor’s wife” in the same “Thou shalt not covet” sentence as a man’s livestock!

A woman could be left homeless, destitute, starving to death, because she burned the toast.

So this isn’t about forcing women, or anyone, to stay in abusive relationships, it is about elevating women, and by extension all people, of any race or gender or nationality or orientation or identity, to the level of equal human beings.

I am serious. If we can get that one thing right, everything else will fall in to place.

If I consider every human being equal, then I don’t have to worry about being greater than someone else. No one has to be less-than for me to feel good. If every human being is of equal value in the eyes of God, then my concern for right relationship with God compels me to act like it – to reconcile, to support, to heal.

If I am honest, it would be easier if our passage today was a list of rules and regulations, a checklist I could review every day and give myself a pass-or-fail. Relationships are messy, difficult things. I am a dyed in the wool extrovert (I know that is a shock), but there are days when I just don’t want to be messed with. There are times when I get hurt or offended or wronged and, by golly, someone owes me an apology.

But…

God cares about us. God cares about our relationships, and right relationships are more important than being right.

Now, let me say this very clearly: this does nothing to release us from the responsibility of speaking truth to power, for standing up against the forces of systemic oppression and injustice. Yes, sometimes when we do these important acts of protest and advocacy, we can’t simultaneously be nice.

However, and this is important, when we speak the truth to power, when we stand against unjust and oppressive systems, we are doing just that – we are fighting systems and structures, not people. In the epistle to the Ephesians, chapter six and verse twelve, we read, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Remember that the same Jesus who ate with Pharisees, who was buried in a Sadducees’ tomb, spoke against them – we talked about this last Sunday, how in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, Jesus proclaimed woe to scribes and Pharisees, called them hypocrites – but it was their system of oppression and condemnation that Jesus condemned. No person was, or is, outside of his love and redemption.

I’m going to leave us all today with some homework. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give a test next week.

In the coming week, I’d like to invite you to join me in doing two things. First, call to mind one of the relationships in your life that is most important to you. One that is healthy and whole and good and sustains you. What makes that a good relationship? Why is that relationship so important? Reflect on that relationship this week, and in your time of prayer and meditation give God thanks for that person and the relationship you share.

Second, think about another relationship that is important to you, but it has suffered some damage. Don’t waste time trying to figure out who was to blame for the hurt; rather, hold that person, hold that relationship in prayer. Offer that broken relationship to God as an arena of God’s help and healing. And here is the hard part: take some time and think about what action you can take to move that relationship to greater health.

That’s it. We start small. Just one.

Let us pray.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you:

We give you praise for our good relationships. Help us to see, and to focus upon, the things that are good and right and which bring us joy and life.

And because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you,

give us the help of your grace to begin to heal those relationships which require reconciliation, and to practice forgiveness in those places where reconciliation is not possible.

Loving Creator, may we please you both in will and deed;

through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

What’s The Point?

 

Thanks to the scholarship of Karoline Lewis and Bruce Epperly for inspiration and direction in writing this sermon, and to Black Lives Matter – Birmingham Chapter founder Cara McClure for reading it over and loving it.

Closing poem is by Elisabeth Elliot, found here.

Image: 2016 Alabama Poverty Data Sheet, available through Alabama Possible.

Isaiah 58:1-12

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Today, in churches all across the country, in Sunday schools and Bible study groups and sanctuaries of every denomination, individuals and congregations will be struggling with —wrestling with — our Gospel reading. I mean, let’s set aside trying to explain how salt can become not salty, there’s all this stuff about keeping the Law… yeah, the Mosaic Law, which the Apostle Paul, and millenia of Christian theology and doctrine, have taught that we are no longer under! “Whoever breaks… the least of these commandments… will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”

How do we faithfully approach such a Scripture? Do we ignore it, focusing on the safer parts, “salt of the earth,” “light of the world?” Do we construct a to-do list in making sure our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees? Do we skip it and concentrate on the Epistle reading, from First Corinthians? Do we declare that, all this time, we’ve been doing it wrong, and we have to start today keeping every letter of the Mosaic Law, because obviously God must care if we go to church on Saturday and eat bacon and shrimp and wear clothes made from polyester blends?

I don’t think so. I think there’s something deeper at work here, and not just because I like bacon. In fact, I think that the whole idea of simply keeping the letter of the law, even to the degree that the Pharisees strove to be faithful to the finest distinction of the intention of every tenet, is not only the easy way out, it’s the core of the problem.

And it was not a new problem. In our Old Testament reading, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah about the same issue: in short, slavishly following the letter of the law while completely missing its spirit — missing, if you will, the point.

Isaiah was writing to a Jewish people who had returned to a ruined Jerusalem after seventy years of exile in Babylon. Bit by bit, they’d rebuilt — repaired the walls, cleaned the rubble, cobbled together a Temple that was less than a shadow of the glory of Solomon’s Temple. And as they worked, as they scraped together enough food to barely survive day-to-day, they were very careful to follow every letter of the Mosaic Law.

It could be argued that they sacrificed and prayed and fasted for fear that, if they neglected the rituals, God would again send an army to destroy the city, again compel their conqueror (currently the Persian, Cyrus the Great) to exile them — perhaps even erase them from the face of the earth. But there was more: there was an expectation that, if they did everything right, if they prayed and fasted and sacrificed enough, God would make things better: more food, easier access to water, and an end to living under the rule of a foreign oppressor.

But time marched on, and things didn’t get better. Either nothing at all changed, or it got worse, depending on who you asked. Eventually, people began asking, “What’s the point?” “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

And maybe folks in Jesus’ day were asking the same questions. Six hundred years after Isaiah, Caesar had replaced Cyrus, and despite a grand new Temple, despite all the sacrifices and fasting and worship and prayers and rituals, most people toiled endlessly for a enough bread and beans to survive another day, for enough coins to pay the taxes, for enough water to wet their tongue… nothing ever got better, so what’s the point?

It’s a valid question, even today, isn’t it? What is the point?

Oh, I don’t mean that we are in as dire straits as the Jews of Isaiah’s time, or of Jesus’ time. Though Alabama is the fourth poorest state in the nation, though one in four Alabamians lives in poverty, though thirty-one percent of the residents of the city of Birmingham live in poverty, you and I have it all right. There’s food to eat, money to pay the bills, plenty of food on the table and more than enough water to drink at the turn of a tap.

But do we think this comfort, this success, this sufficiency is contingent on going to church?

Why do Christians spend so much time on doctrine — making certain that what we believe is the right thing to believe, making sure that how we worship is the right way to worship, making sure that we Christians are telling others how to live and think and worship and act? What’s the point?

Now, let me be very clear: yes, worship and study and prayer are very important. The focus of our faith journey is a closer relationship, a more consonant identification with our loving Creator and Jesus Christ, the Author and Finisher of our faith, through the guidance and fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

But can it be that God has only ever cared about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s? Is the whole point of worship and prayer and theology and doctrine — the whole point of sacrifice and fasting and ritual in Isaiah’s time and in Jesus’ time — to make sure that when God tallies the score, we make the cut? Is that really the point?

That’s the challenge that God, through Isaiah, laid out to the Jewish people: Do you really think the whole point of fasting is to abase yourselves, to prove to Me that you’re humble enough, to impress Me with your piety? Do you think that the whole point is to be more holy than the next guy, more religious than her, more pure than him? Do you really think I care about that? Really???

That’s what Jesus is saying to the people who came up the mountain with him — sure, the Pharisees and Scribes are passionate about the rules. Some of the things they believed and taught were, in fact, not different from Jesus’ beliefs and teachings: quite in contrast to the Temple elite and Sadduccees, they believed that a life of faith was lived apart from the Temple, God was present at all times, and to be worshiped in everyday life. But it wasn’t the number of steps someone could walk on the Sabbath that God cared about. It wasn’t whether or not one performed a hand-washing ritual before a meal, or never dared to step foot on Samaritan soil, or took part in scheduled fasts. That was not the point!

And this is what Jesus says to us today: Do we think that going to church every week, that being a Presbyterian, or a Methodist, or a Lutheran, or Catholic, or Orthodox, is all that God is looking for? Is it really of utmost importance to the Almighty whether we sprinkle or pour or dunk to baptize, or whether we baptize infants or adults? Does God examine us based on whether we see the elements of the Lord’s table through a transubstantialist or consubstantiationalist or virtualist or ordinalist doctrine? Do we lose points on the big scoreboard in the sky if we don’t understand what any of those words even mean? Are we awarded extra brownie points for being Reformed as opposed to Calvinist or Armenian, for preferring a Liberation theology to a systematic one?

Make no mistake, what we believe matters, but what matters more is why we believe it — and what we do with what we believe.

That’s what Isaiah’s telling the Jews, isn’t it? “Hey, the whole idea behind fasting is to make sure everyone has enough to eat. You humble yourself so you can lift up someone else! I don’t care about ritual, I care about injustice and poverty and homelessness, breaking yokes and freeing the oppressed!”

According to what God said through Isaiah, that was the point.

But what about our Gospel reading? Are we committing the sin of isogesis, of reading in to the Scriptures what we want them to say?

If our reading this morning existed in a vacuum, I’d have to say “yes.” But Jesus gives us a thread to pull: “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Scribes and Pharisees appeared pious, appeared holy, but we need look no further than Matthew’s twenty-third chapter to see Jesus comparing that piety to “whitewashed tombs,” or cups that are only washed on the outside. He says, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; [t]hey love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues… to be greeted with respect… to have people call them rabbi…” Jesus says, repeatedly, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees,” calls them “blind guides,” out and out calls them hypocrites, accuses them of locking people out of the kingdom of heaven! And the key phrase of it all is the twenty-third verse: “you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”

If we believe what we believe so we can not go to Hell, we miss the point. If what we do with our faith is centered only on worship and ritual, and if it is intended to benefit only our selves, we miss the point. And if what we do with what we believe doesn’t involve mercy and justice and faith, we miss the point.

Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth — are, not should be or could be or ought to be, are. Salt serves to improve the quality of life, that is the point of salt: it makes food palatable, sure, but in Jesus’ time it was believed to have medicinal and purifying qualities as well — it was a preservative, newborn babies were rubbed in salt, Roman soldiers were historically paid with salt (that’s where someone being “worth their salt” comes from), so it had an intrinsic value so far as it benefited others, but no further — if it didn’t serve to improve in some way, it was worthless.

Jesus says that we are the light of the world — are, not should be or could be or ought to be, are. Light illuminates, it serves to drive out darkness, to call attention to, to bring comfort from fear, awareness and knowledge and protection. That’s the point of light, to be a benefit to others. Hide it, obscure it in some way, and it becomes worthless.

Humans were meant for more than scraping by, day to day. We were meant for more than just working, paying bills, and dying. Our faith in Christ is meant for more than a personal panacea, a “get-out-of-Hell-free” card.

There are plenty of things to do, countless ways we can act to use our faith in Jesus Christ to make the kingdom of heaven a reality in the lives of others. We can and should feed the hungry, we can and should clothe the naked, we can and should welcome the alien in our midst, we can and should speak the truth to power and defend the powerless and bring the marginalized into the fold…

And no, of course, we can’t do everything. But, as Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred hungry people, feed just one.”

Do it immediately;

Do it with prayer;

Do it reliantly,

casting all care;

Do it with reverence,

Tracing His Hand,

Who placed it before thee with

Earnest command.

Stayed on Omnipotence,

Safe ‘neath His wing,

Leave all resultings,

DO THE NEXT THING.

That is the point.

 

The Beatitudes: A Message For Now

I am indebted to the scholarship of the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton, Sarah Dylan Breuer, and The Girardian Lectionary.

The photo is by Judy Hand-Truitt, from “White Birminghamians For Black Lives,” a weekly witness in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park.

As you watch the news, remember the words of the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“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.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

What did I just read?

It’s a serious question, and I don’t mean it objectively. I want every one of us to think about how we hear the Beatitudes. Are these verses poetry? Advice? Feel-good fluff, the kind of stuff you put on coffee mugs and really bad Bible-store art?

I ask this because most Americans suffer from an affliction called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or MTD for short.

MTD has five basic tenets of belief:

1 — A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

2 — God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3 — The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4 — God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

5 — Good people go to heaven when they die

When we view the Beatitudes through the lenses of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, we tend to see these verses as advice: What the Reverend Rober Schuller called “Be-Happy-Attitudes.” All we really need to do in order to be happy — blessed — is to have the proper mindset. Be appropriately meek and pure in heart, and presto-changeo, we get to go to heaven!

Only it is hard — even impossible — to just jinn up the correct emotions on command.  “Hey you, quit being satisfied with your life! Don’t you know you’re supposed to be poor in spirit?” “Or you, what are you smiling about, that’s no way for a mourner to look!”

And we who claim that Christ has done away with the Law — is it not creating a new law to use the Beatitudes as behavior-modification tips? Maybe part of the problem is that we are always looking for an answer to some form of the question that the Rich Young Ruler asked Jesus: “What must I do to be saved?”  So, Jesus proclaims a promise – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” – and we hear a command – “Be a Peacemaker!” And sure, being a peacemaker, or hungering and thirsting after righteousness, are good things and making efforts toward peace and righteousness never hurt anybody.

Only the Beatitudes are not a checklist. The Beatitudes are not good advice — the Beatitudes are Good News!

Jesus doesn’t take his disciples apart from the crowd to give them a pep talk. “The meek inherit the earth,” “those who mourn are comforted,” and so on aren’t commands to be meek or mournful. These are promises! Promises that in the coming kingdom those who are already meek and mournful, those who work for peace or hunger and thirst for righteousness; those who pure in heart and merciful – these will come into their own and find their faith and constancy rewarded and honored in a world that has come more and more in line with God’s will and God’s way.

…wait a minute. How does this change anything? If I’m honest with myself, I’m not meek, I don’t seek peace all that much, I’m too full of myself most of the time to be poor in spirit, so what do I do to bring myself more in line? It’s still a to-do list!

Unless it isn’t. What if the whole point of the Beatitudes is found in the one “blessed” that Jesus expands on? “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”?

At this point in Matthew’s account, he has called four disciples: Simon and Andrew, James and John. He’s been preaching and healing and gathering massive crowds. It isn’t hard to imagine that, to the disciples, it looked like Jesus was spectacularly successful, to think that they’d hitched their wagons to a real winner!

But Jesus, and you and I, know that these adoring crowds will, all too soon, be screaming for Jesus’ death. Jesus knows that, all too soon, instead of sitting on a mountain, Jesus will hang naked from a cross. This “success” is temporary, and it isn’t the point, anyway.

Jesus came to set us free. And the path to that freedom would be long and tiresome and painful and bloody and would seem to dead-end with a cross and a tomb. And even though the tomb was not the final word, these disciples Jesus is talking to, and millions more, would, in sharing the Good News of the risen Christ, encounter rejection, poverty, pain, loss, mockery, torture and death.

This doesn’t sound like a blessing, does it?

After all, the very act of being a follower of Christ was rife with opportunities for someone to lose their livelihood, their families, their worth their position, even their life.

Followers of Christ were “meek.” Far from our usual idea of “meekness” as someone who is “overly submissive or compliant, spiritless, or tame,” the kind of meekness Jesus refers to is “turning the other cheek,” being specifically nonviolent, even in protests, like Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr.

Followers of Christ were “merciful” and “peacemakers,” seeking reconciliation with, rather than revenge on, someone who wronged them. Followers of Christ were “pure in heart,” and as Jesus defines purity, that meant doing things – like eating with any who would break bread with you – which were bound to render them impure in others’ eyes.

Being a Christian meant that one was most likely going to end up being cast out from their family, they were going to lose relationships and associations. And while you or I might survive this kind of thing in today’s society, in first-century Judean culture, it was suicide.

In the New Testament world, the esteem you commanded was in large part a function of how important your connections — your family members, your patrons, and your clients — were. If you were (whether by birth, adoption, or being a slave or freedperson) part of a very important family, you were very important. If your family was less important, you were less important. And if you weren’t connected at all, that didn’t make you “your own person”; it made you nobody. That’s serious stuff, because nobody wants to do business with a nobody; being pushed out of your network of social relationships could also mean being left with nothing to live on and no way to get out of that position.

The one pushed out could be destitute. The Greek is ptochos, traditionally translated “poor in spirit.” The hunger and thirst that Matthew 5:6 talks about — literal hunger and thirst incurred for righteousness as Jesus redefined it — would certainly follow, as would mourning.

You get the idea. Jesus was preparing his disciples — those standing and listening as he sat and taught, as well as those who read and heard his words in persecuted churches in the first centuries of the Church, and those enduring real persecution in countries around the world today.

And one of the important messages Jesus is giving them is that they are not alone. Not rejected. Not destitute. By giving them the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus gives them a family. They are children of the God who created the universe, to whom all honor belongs. They are children of one Father, and that makes them brothers and sisters. They will never be bereft in a community that sees themselves as family, and that cares for one another in ways that show that they take that family relationship with utmost seriousness.

Cool, huh? So this is the point in the sermon where I tie it all up, saying that we need to treat the poor with honor in exactly the ways I’ve already mentioned: providing for their needs, recognizing them as humans deserving dignity as opposed to ridicule, disgust, and rejection. It’s a nice, safe, comfortable way to end a sermon, pass the plate, sing, ‘don’t forget to dance.’

But as much as The Beatitudes are not poetic pick-me-ups, they, like all of Scripture, hold much more depth than a single definition does justice to. If these words were only relevant to the men and women who were poor in the first century, if they only impacted those persecuted for Christ in the centuries leading up to Constantine, then why preach them? No, the Beatitudes speak to us today.

Over against the disease of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which says that God exists but doesn’t really care, exists but only to cater to our desires, exists but only as doorkeeper of the Sweet Bye-and-Bye, the Beatitudes promise us that God is present and active and cares about all who hurt, all who hunger and thirst, all who seek righteousness and hope. The Kingdom of Heaven is promised to them — the ability to experience God is promised to them.

Eventually? When they die?

No. Now.

Notice the part where Jesus says that the meek will inherit the earth? That’ll be a little difficult if, as we read in the Book of the Revelation, earth is done away with, won’t it?

Heaven is God’s space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary, earthly reality and interlocking with it. When we pray, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done,” we are praying about the rule of heaven coming to earth. In Jesus Christ, God is establishing his sovereign rule not just in heaven, not just someday, but on earth, here and now, as well.

But if I am not already peace-seeking, not already meek, not already any of those things Jesus mentions in the Beatitudes, how do I get there? I have to ask, like the Rich Young Ruler, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus came to save us. All of us. The poor in spirit, and people like me, too. The merciful, and people like me, too. The meek, and people like me, too.

Our relationship with the risen Christ, our adoption by our loving Creator, is a journey. We aren’t where we’re going, but we aren’t where we’ve been.

We pray. We study. We learn from those who are meek, who are poor in spirit, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and we grow.

Yes, the Beatitudes speak to us today.  They speak words of challenge, instruction, hope, and comfort to our spirit, in a very real way.

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the poor in spirit, who have failed, those whose self-dependence is exhausted, and whose only recourse is grace, Those who know that, without the love of Christ they are, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt: without hope, without purpose, without a real future. The kingdom of heaven, God’s reign experienced and lived on earth, belongs – lock, stock, and barrel – to them.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those who mourn, both for the things which should be better in the world, and for the things which should be better in themselves; for the relationships and triumphs they’ve lost, and those they will never have. They will be comforted, God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the meek, who speak the truth to power, refusing to encourage or engage in violence, yet standing for truth, and for fair treatment for all inhabitants of the earth. These are the ones whose inheritance is the planet itself.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, both within themselves, and for justice in the world around them. Those who speak truth to power, even when their voice shakes. Those who see events in the world around them, and stand in the gap against the forces of marginalization, exclusion, oppression, and bigotry. Their hunger and thirst will certainly be satisfied!”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the ones who practice mercy when it matters most, and when it is least convenient. God’s grace will shower them with mercy.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the pure in heart, who don’t wonder “what’s in it for me,” who love without reservation, who insist on seeing the good in others. They will see God, both in the faces of those they love… and in that now-and-coming Kingdom.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the peacemakers, the finders of common ground, those who beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, who don’t fear conflict, but who face it and defuse it. These folks are called ‘children of God.’”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those in Laos, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Algeria, who are persecuted for being Christians, the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are you who live in Indonesia, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Libya, Turkey, Columbia, Cuba, and so many other countries, where you are imprisoned, reviled, persecuted and killed for believing in Jesus Christ. You’re in the company of all of God’s prophets, and your reward in heaven is immense.”

Allelia. Amen.

 

Powerful Foolishness…

More and more, what will set us apart as people of faith in Jesus Christ is not whether we are Presbyterian or Baptist or Catholic or Anglican, whether we are Reformed or Orthodox or Pentecostal. Those things did not matter one whit to Paul as he wrote to the Corinthians, and they must not matter one whit today. Rather, the primary importance must be this: What we do about what we believe?

This isn’t a sermon about the 45th President.

Not directly.

*ahem*

OK, I’ll stop.

After this one.

I am blessed by the friendship and scholarship of Daniel Kirk, and (this week) his post on “Working Preacher.” I also got inspiration and direction from Dwight Peterson, Scott Hoezee, the always-awesome Bruce Epperly, Kathryn Matthews, and Andrew Marr. Thanks also to Derrick Weston, who read it over for me.

I’ll preface the sermon (on this blog) with the words of Pastor Ashley Harness, who blessed the Minnesota Women’s March with these words:

(Matthew 5:1-11, adapted):

Blessed are those who protest.
Blessed are the women, cis- and transgender.
Blessed are the poor and those who work too many jobs to make ends meet and those who cannot find a job.
Blessed are the refugees and immigrants, no matter their legal status.
Blessed are the uninsured and those who fear they will lose their insurance.
Blessed are those with preexisting conditions.
Blessed are those who weep and mourn.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Blessed are those who have survived sexual violence and abuse.
Blessed are those who speak their truth.
Blessed are those who seek our collective liberation.
Blessed are those who cry, “Black Lives Matter.”
Blessed are the indigenous and blessed are their sovereign, sacred lands.
Blessed is the Earth under the siege of climate change.
Blessed are those who are differently abled.
Blessed are the sacred choices of women about their bodies.
Blessed are the babies and children.
Blessed are the aging and elders.
Blessed are those who are LGBTQ.
Blessed are those who are the Muslim and threatened with a registry.
Blessed are those who are Jewish and threatened with bombs.
Blessed are all those who are persecuted.
Blessed are those who stand in solidarity.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessed are we, the people, who inaugurate our resistance this morning.

(Adapted also from Rev. Emily Scott

(Featured Image courtesy of Kim Kelley, featuring Rev. Lavender Kelley)

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

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? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb? It depends on who you ask: Charismatics? Just one; their hands are already in the air. Pentecostals? Ten; one to change the light bulb, and ten to pray against the spirit of darkness. Catholic? None; they only use candles. Baptist? At least fifteen; One to change the bulb, and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the fried chicken and potato salad. Episcopalian? Three; one to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks, and one to talk about how much better the old light bulb was. Amish? …what’s a light bulb?

Presbyterians? CHANGE???

Christians don’t agree on much, it’s true. There are, as far as I can tell, something over thirty thousand different denominations among Protestants, and more if you include Catholic and Orthodox divisions. We Christians are divided over doctrine, baptism, what the Lord’s Supper means, music, worship styles, Christology, Mariology, Trinitarian theology, role of clergy, marriage, gender roles, and I could go on into infinity. These divisions weaken our effectiveness and make us look utterly ridiculous, at times, to those outside the Christian faith.

But what, exactly, does it mean to be “in agreement,” to have “no divisions,” to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose?” Where’s the bar set — absolute lockstep, where the only way to be acceptably Christian is to entertain no thought that isn’t pre-approved by the General Assembly of the PC(USA)? Should we only have friends and recognize those family members who agree with our beliefs and practices? Should we build walls around ourselves to maintain our theological and ideological purity?

I want to suggest this morning that, as difficult as that kind of rigidity would be to establish and maintain (and there are, historically, individuals, churches, and entire denominations who have aspired to do just that), that this kind of apartheid is the easy way out. Whether it’s encoded in our DNA, or a product of societal training, or the result of a lifetime of commercial conditioning, we humans seek homogeneity: we are most comfortable among people who look like us, think like us, act like us.

And Christ calls us to more.

What Paul is combating in this letter to the church at Corinth is the same thing that has, for millenia, infected the Christian church: a party spirit. Some Corinthians were flocking to Apollos’ smooth rhetoric, which lived up to the day’s worldly display of wisdom. Others embraced Cephas’ Jewish theology that seemed to have a stronger biblical pedigree than what Paul had to offer. Still others laid claim to an exclusive grasp of their own history, roots, and founder in the Apostle Paul. And then there were some who either claimed to be above it all or declared that they alone held to the true Gospel of Christ.

In short, it was a mess.

And what Paul is saying here, very clearly and specifically, is that it’s all garbage. Christ calls us to more.

I think it’s significant that, in pointing out the divisions — “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” — Paul doesn’t talk about what the specific issues were. We know, from elsewhere in the Scriptures, that Paul and Cephas, or Peter, had some deep disagreements, but he doesn’t take time to point them out here.

In fact, while it sounds like Paul rambles a bit, trying to recall everyone he, personally, baptized, the fact that he has trouble listing them all is in itself significant: who does the sprinkling or pouring or immersion is irrelevant, that isn’t what makes a person a Christian.

Our baptism should unite us; instead what’s happened in Corinth is what has all too often what’s happened among Christianity as a whole across the centuries: we’ve allowed mimetic rivalry to take hold — we have become mirror images against one another over things like what it means when we are baptized or come to the Lord’s Table, and we’ve allowed ourselves to embrace rivalry for the sake of rivalry.

This holds true even for churches that don’t claim a denomination: this church or that church has a better preacher or praise team or better music or more comfortable seating or anyone who’s anyone goes here or goes there.

And Paul is saying to the Corinthian church, and to us, that Christ calls us to more. Christ calls us to unity.

Which brings me right back to my original question: what is “unity?”

Let’s begin by exploring what “unity” is not — unity is not “uniformity.” We are absolutely free to disagree — on politics, on which football team is superior, on what TV shows we like, on what kind of ice cream is best, on whether or not cheese or sugar belongs in grits, on what we like in our coffee or whether we even like coffee, on hairstyles and fashion choices and music and whether or not we like to sleep with a fan on, and the list goes on and on and on and on.

I’ll go even farther. We can disagree on how wet we should get and how old we should be when we get baptized. We can disagree on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper — transubstantiation or consubstantiation or virtualism or ordinalism. We can like organ music or piano music or guitar music or acapella or praise bands in worship. We can like high church or low church, we can like to dance in the aisles or not, we can like our preachers to shout or not, we can ascribe to whatever theory of atonement speaks to us most clearly, and we can and I think we should argue about these things often and loudly and passionately.

I have a very few friends with whom I can disagree at length, and can safely, contentiously and passionately wrestle over issues of politics and theology. When we allow iron to sharpen iron, we open ourselves up to the joy of clarifying our thinking and the danger of changing or maturing our beliefs.

We all have something to bring to the table! There’s the deep dedication to the plight of the oppressed that Liberation Theology teaches. There’s the pomp and mystery of the Catholic Church. There’s the unbridled passion of the Charismatic and Pentecostal traditions, and like I said before, the list goes on and on and on.

Paul tells us in our reading this morning that these things should not separate us, because what unites us is so much greater: the Cross!

We cannot overemphasize just how ridiculous the Cross appeared to most people in the first century. There were thousands and thousands of gods spread among the cultures of the Roman empire, to say nothing of the barbarians that populated the unconquered lands. And of all these major and minor deities, not one — not one! — had been killed by the government! Not a single one had done something so shameful and repugnant as allow himself to hang, nailed, naked and bleeding, on a Roman device of torture and execution! Who in their right mind would believe such a thing, never mind the whole ridiculous claim that this god had risen from the dead?

And yet those who had heard the message, and who had responded to the invitation to be reconciled to their loving Creator, knew the power of that Cross, knew the joy of new life, knew the audacity of hope.

Is it any more ridiculous today, when the voices of the powerful seek to divide us ever further, to resolve to look past differences of race and age and gender and politics and orientation and nationality, to resolve to stand shoulder to shoulder and speak truth to that power, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and to do all of those things which Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 25 and verses 31 through 46, to be precise, told us mattered if we are to call ourselves sheep and not goats?

More and more, what will set us apart as people of faith in Jesus Christ is not whether we are Presbyterian or Baptist or Catholic or Anglican, whether we are Reformed or Orthodox or Pentecostal. Those things did not matter one whit to Paul as he wrote to the Corinthians, and they must not matter one whit today. Rather, the primary importance must be this: What we do about what we believe? Do we respond to the doomsayers and nationalists by circling the wagons, drawing into ourselves for protection?

Or do we do the foolish, audacious, and powerful thing? Throw our doors and our hearts open wide, tear down the fences around our tables and our lives, and love boldly and without reservation?

For me, the answer is difficult, uncomfortable, frightening, foolish and powerful. Because, yes, Christ calls us to unity. Christ calls us to embrace this powerful foolishness. Christ calls us to more.

The Greater Things Start Here…

I am deeply indebted to Kimberly Knight and “A Lesbian’s Lectionary Journey” for insights and assistance in writing this sermon.

Featured Image by Elieser Wright of Cubster Photography.

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

 

This is the Word of the Lord.

When we look at the baptism of Jesus, there has always been one question I’ve struggled with: “why?”

John’s baptism was specifically stated as serving to signify repentance for the forgiveness of sins – what we would today call “believer’s baptism.” And while we Presbyterians typically don’t practice that form of baptism, we do live in Alabama, and our understanding of theology is heavily influenced, whether we like it or not, by Evangelical, Southern Baptist theology. So the idea of Jesus needing to be baptized is… confusing.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. John the Baptist himself resists the idea of baptizing Jesus – depending on how someone translates the original Greek, he might have had a quiet conversation with Jesus right then and there, or there might have been an ongoing argument about it, where this was the final confrontation… or John might have been physically blocking Jesus from getting in that muddy water.

I don’t know.

But there are a few things I do know, which is probably a good thing, since otherwise that would be the end of the sermon.

Up to this point in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has had everything done for him: Angels have declared him, have given warnings for his safety, Joseph has protected him, his parents have raised him… we are three chapters into the narrative before Jesus speaks a word!

And when he speaks that word – when the King of kings and Lord of lords makes that first decisive step into his own story, it’s a step into the mud and mire common to all humanity. When the Messiah, the Son of God, the firstborn of all creation, present at and active in the creation of all that is, speaks his first words, they are words of submission to the will of God. “…it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

It can be argued that, up to this point in human history, God was transcendent – separated from humankind, existing independent of natural law – “up there” somewhere. At least, that’s how everyone viewed God. Some people – prophets, kings, folks like that – were present at times when the barrier between heaven and earth grew thin, and God poked through with a Word, with a sign or a miracle… but for the most part, humans made sacrifices and followed the Law as best they could, and hoped for something more. Waited for something more.

John the Baptist knew that Jesus was that something more – in the two verses just prior to today’s reading, he said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

I wonder – we see a bit of John’s protest against Jesus, and Jesus’ reply… I wonder if the discussion went something along the lines of this:

John: Wait, what? Me baptize YOU? Number one, hello, I’m not fit to carry your shoes, much less baptize you. Number TWO, you might have noticed that I am proclaiming this baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and unless you’ve forgotten, you don’t need any of that! Jesus, you’re meant for greater things!

Jesus: Yes, I know. And the greater things start here.

The greater things start here.

We can wax philosophical about God becoming flesh and having to be potty trained and learn how to walk and use a fork, but it’s here on the edge of the wilderness, the banks of the Jordan, where philosophy meets reality.

Because Jesus couldn’t do the will of his Father by spending all his time the Temple courts or in the palace of a king. The people who really need to know that God loves them usually don’t live in church or occupy the halls of power. In order to do the will of his Father, Jesus had to live among people who knew pain and loss and fear and hunger and thirst and illness and death and oppression and the numbing monotony of spending every waking hour toiling and scraping to cobble together just enough bread and beans to feed the family for one more day. He had to know that hunger intimately, personally. He had to know what it felt like to be thirsty. He had to know what it was like to have sand and dirt blown into your eyes and nose and mouth as you trudged along dangerous roads. He had to know what it was like to be so bone-tired you’d sit in the dirt, back to the shady side of a well in a town in Samaria, and ask the first person you see for a drink of water.

The greater things start here. So yes, John stepped aside and Jesus stepped into the mud, his feet sinking to the ankle and making those loud schlorping noises as he walked down into the barely-tolerable cold water.

The baptism of Jesus was a constructive act of destruction – building the salvation of all creation by breaking down every sociological and theological barrier between God and humankind, a declaration that, once and for all, God really is with us.

The baptism of Jesus it was an act of submission – Jesus giving his life and will over to the Father and to God’s plan for the salvation of humankind.

Because however a group or denomination or faith tradition views the act of baptism, however wet one gets when they’re baptized, what we are saying when we baptize and are baptized is that God has broken down the barrier of sin.

And I want to be very specific about that word, “sin.” Paul Tillich writes, “Do we realize that sin does not mean an immoral act, that “sin” should never be used in the plural, and that not our sins, but rather our sin is the great, all-pervading problem of our life? Do we still know that it is arrogant and erroneous to divide [people] by calling some “sinners” and others “righteous”? For by way of such a division, we can usually discover that we ourselves do not quite belong to the “sinner,” since we have avoided heavy sins, have made some progress in the control of this or that sin, and have been even humble enough not to call ourselves righteous…

…this kind of thinking and feeling about sin is far removed from what the great religious tradition, both within and outside the Bible, has meant when it speaks of sin…

…sin is separation. To be in a state of sin is to be in the state of separation. And separation is threefold: there is separation among individual lives, separation of a [person] from [one’s]self, and separation of all [humanity] from the Ground of Being.”

So however a group or denomination or religious tradition practices baptism, however wet we get, what we say when we baptize or are baptized is that we are no longer a human race searching for ourselves while cowering before a God outside of creation – nor must we cower before the powers and principalities of this world (religious or political) – we are beautiful children of God, unified with God and all of creation, with whom God is pleased.

When Jesus came up out of that water, everything changed. The heavens burst open, the Holy Spirit settled on Jesus like a dove, and the Father spoke words of identification and approval. Jesus stepped up out of that water and never stopped moving.

He moved through temptation in the wilderness. He moved through towns all across Judea, preaching and healing and cleansing and feeding and raising from the dead. He moved through Jerusalem to the Cross and death. He rose again from the dead and moved out from the tomb and up to the right hand of God.

And Jesus still moves today.

Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

We have different vocations, different paths we walk day-to-day, but make no mistake: we share the same calling. Wherever we are and whatever we do, we are called to be Jesus moving and acting in the world today. We are Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, and body: We help, we love, we lift up, we love, we defend, we love, we affirm, we love, we feed, we love, we clothe, and did I mention that we love?

The greater things start here. So… let’s get moving.