Wednesday, February 26, 2020

I Regard Everything as Loss

February 26, 2020, Ash Wednesday
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b - 6:10

For the prophet Joel, it seems, things were pretty bad. “Sound the alarm!” “The day of the Lord is coming!” And unless you really think the world is ending in November, we don’t really share Joel’s passion. Of course, our nation hasn’t been invaded by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, or a swarm of locusts that turns the day to darkness. But we should not be so complacent as to think that we don’t need God.

After all, there is plenty in the world today to be worried about. Will there ever be peace in the Middle-East? Will the Corona virus wipe us all out? Will climate change cause ever-increasingly powerful storms? Maybe things aren’t as bad for us as they were for Joel, but we could stand to take some time to return to God, to reflect on our spiritual life, and to examine how we relate to the world.

What is Lent really about, anyway? “The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer—through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial—for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.”[1] Prayer serves to direct our attention to God. Penitence is “the condition of being sorrowful and remorseful for sins one has committed.”[2] Almsgiving is charity, giving to those in need and thus showing love for our neighbor. And self-denial is the giving-something-up which is meant to redirect our thoughts and energy from bodily or earthly things to spiritual or divine things. Lent was originally the time when candidates prepared for baptism, which took place during the Easter vigil, the Saturday night before Easter Sunday morning. It was an intense period of fasting and prayer.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter Sunday. (Sundays are not counted as part of Lent since every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection.) The forty days symbolize the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as a sign of repentance. The act echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one’s head to signify repentance before God.[3] You may recall that Job, after arguing his case before God and being humbled, repented in sack-cloth and ashes. The ashes are also a reminder of our mortality, as we read in Genesis 3:19, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

To repent means to “turn again,” to turn, or re-turn to God. Do you ever feel like you have been turned away from God, headed off in pursuit of something less than your best self? I feel that way at times, and I get dizzy trying to turn the right way. Sometimes I don’t want to turn, because I feel guilty for turning away in the first place. But I do keep turning; because I know what Joel is telling us is true. God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” It’s usually not easy to repent, to try to make up for what I have done wrong, but at least I don’t have to wear a sack and sit in a pile of ashes when I do it.

It is good to have a time when we focus on what we have done wrong. It is a good thing to recognize that we all make mistakes, that we have all hurt others, and that we could all stand to pray more, do more to help others, and make do with less. “Now is the acceptable time,” says Paul, “now is the day of salvation!” Now is the time for a few small repairs.

Maybe what we should focus on is our stuff. We have too much stuff, and a lot of it is unnecessary and unused. Some of our stuff was so important for us to have just a short time ago, and now it’s not stuff anymore, it’s trash. It can take a lot of time and money to deal with all of our stuff too. We have to store our stuff, clean our stuff, buy, sell, and dispose of our stuff. Maybe Lent is the time to really take a look at our stuff and decide: which stuff is necessary, which stuff is good (meaning that it brings greater joy, freedom, love, health, and connection to God and those around us), and which stuff is bad (meaning it takes away from those things). And maybe it’s time to give away some of our stuff to people who could benefit from it more than us.

Maybe we should focus on food. Fasting is a traditional practice in lent. Going without sweets, eating less, or even eating things that are better for us can really change how we feel, how we look, and how much we enjoy the food that we do have. We have to be careful to not over-do it, especially people who have an eating disorder. Maybe it’s where and with whom we eat that needs some study. Sharing a meal builds connections between us, and is a way of nourishing one another with more than just the food. I could stand to eat alone less often.

Maybe our focus should be on our time and how we spend it. Maybe we need to work on our relationships and practicing forgiveness. Maybe we should let go of the things that are dragging us down. Whatever we focus on, Christ invites us to be reconciled to God, accept the grace of God, and be free from the obstacle of sin that blocks our way.

The Apostle Paul, living his life as a servant of God, spreading the gospel and starting churches, did not have it easy. And it seems foolish to follow a path that leads to “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, [and] hunger.” And yet that is the path that Paul invites us to walk. To live as a Christian, to really live life as Jesus would have us live, can be a dangerous thing. It is not a choice to make lightly. You might want to reflect for a while on whether you really want to follow Jesus. I suggest that you think about it for, say, forty days.

Now Paul managed to endure all that suffering and still rejoice, still feel like he possessed everything. How did he do it? He had the weapons of righteousness with which to defend himself. He had “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.” He had faith in the God who saved the world. He had all that he needed because he knew the risen Christ. In the words that he wrote to the Philippians: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”[4] I pray that we will all come to know Christ as Paul did. Amen.

[2] Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).
[4] Philippians 3:8-9. The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

A Light That Remains

February 23, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

Moses had a lot on his plate. A host of people had followed him out of Egypt, away from slavery, and toward the Promised Land. Yet here, in the desert, they suffered. They needed guidance, instruction, they needed the laws and commandments of God. Moses went up on the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, and he received something more, as well. “As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (34:29) The light of God remained with him as he led the people of Israel to their new home.

The disciples had a lot to worry about. Just a few days before, they had been told by Jesus of the coming journey to Jerusalem, the suffering he would undergo at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, the imminence of his death, and they naturally were deeply troubled. Peter had even tried to convince Jesus to take some other path, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” (16:22)

We, too, try to avoid pain and suffering, even if we know it is for the best. I don’t think anyone really enjoys going to the dentist, or getting their blood drawn. We avoid emotional pain, too, putting off hard conversations, avoiding certain topics at the family gathering.

It may seem that, in a turbulent and troubling world, the best way to keep from being hurt is stoicism, to shut away emotion, to be indifferent to pain and pleasure. If you keep everyone at a distance, don’t get involved, and build walls around your heart, you won’t have to suffer. Don’t risk feeling wonder and you won’t risk feeling heartache. You may not experience any pain or anger, but you won’t know joy and happiness either. Your ability to feel emotions, like the use of muscles, will atrophy.

We each know the pain of loss, the suffering of friends, the illness of a child, the career that has fallen apart, the relationship that has soured. We can choose to smother the pain, to elude the suffering. But what will we lose? Do we dare risk the pain of weeping in sorrow if it means we will be able to cry out in joy when we celebrate?

Jesus isn’t a safe person to be around, if you want to be a stoic. How many people were overwhelmed with joy at the healing touch, cried out praise for being set free from evil spirits, and reached out with trembling hands to touch his? How many times were the crowds filled with awe? When he chastised the authorities, did it stir up their anger? Jesus brings out our emotions, fills our hearts to overflowing, and makes us hunger for justice, mercy, and peace.

If we walk the road with Jesus, if we look with his eyes and hear with his ears, we can’t remain stoic. If we follow the story of the first disciples, we can’t help but be moved by their experience. The amazing joy and grace and kindness that caused them to follow him on the dusty roads of Galilee. The crushing pain of the capture, trial, and crucifixion. The overwhelming joy at the resurrection. If we push down our feelings, we might not cry on Calvary, but we certainly won’t be struck with awe on the mountaintop. If we don’t open our eyes when it is dark, we will never know that light that shines in the darkness.

When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, he had known darkness and terror. He had served in the trenches of the First World War, and he understood the power of evil. Yet, he also knew the power of goodness, of hope, and of light. In the story he wrote, Frodo and his companions are charged with destroying the One Ring of power by taking it into the land of the evil Sauron. They know some of the suffering and fear that they will face. The journey will become very dark for Frodo.

The Fellowship has lost their leader, Gandalf, and they recuperate in the land of the elven queen Galadriel. She knows the darkness they face, perhaps better than any other. She offers the companions gifts to help them on their quest. Galadriel’s gift to Frodo was light. “She held up a small crystal phial: it glittered as she moved it, and rays of white light sprang from her hand. ‘In this phial,’ she said, ‘is caught the light of EƤrendil’s star, set amid the waters of my fountain. It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”[1]

Frodo would face many terrors on the journey to Mordor, and in one terrible moment he and his friend are trapped by the giant spider, Shelob. In their darkest moment, the gift of light would embolden them, give them courage to face the monster, and guide them to their journey’s end.

Peter, James, and John were not stoics, but they weren’t masochists either. Faced with terrors ahead, they sought a way out, to avoid the suffering to come, not understanding that what was to come must be. As Jesus was transfigured before them on the mountain, they tried to hold on to this one amazing moment, to remain in the light of God’s power. 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.” (17:4) Do we really have to face the future, the suffering we know is coming?

It was in that moment that God was fully present. In the voice from the cloud they heard the reassurance of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (17:5) Yes, you must face what is coming. You must go back down the mountain and face the trial, the suffering, and the crucifixion. But this moment is the gift that I give to you, my presence, my light, shining through Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. My light shining in you. In all the chaos to come, the death, the loss, the fear, the confusion, I will be with you. In the bewilderment, the amazement, the hope, and the challenges to come, I will be with you. My light shines with you, and my light does not go out. I care, and I love you, and I won’t ever let you go.

We don’t get to meet Moses, Elijah, and Jesus on the mountain top. We don’t get to see, as Moses did, the appearance of the glory of the Lord, like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain. The dazzling light of Galadriel’s gift doesn’t shine for us. But when we face the world that is below the mountain, when we face the world with the suffering and fear of the cross, the world that may break us, we are not without the light of hope. The light that shone from that mountaintop can shine in our own experiences of transformation, hope, and grace. We may find the light in a sanctuary or a hospital room, on a mountain trail or the sidewalk, in a moment where when the sacred and the holy overcome our fears and give us hope.

We can choose to shut out the light, to ignore the emotions, to carry on with stoic resolve. Or we can remember that the light shines even in the dark places, that love and hope can lift us up, and we are not alone.

What happened on the mountain was God’s way of preparing the disciples for the journey they faced. They would go together, companions, a fellowship encouraging one another with memories of the light as they traveled the dark paths. The experience of knowing the true nature of Jesus, the divine light that shone from him through them, would be enough to sustain them through the crucifixion to the resurrection, and beyond.

As we enter the season of Lent, whether you take more time for reflection, sacrifice luxuries, or take on a spiritual discipline, I encourage you to experience your emotions more deeply. I entreat you to look for the light of holiness that shines even in the shadows. Remembering the transfiguration can sustain us as it did the disciples, knowing that Jesus shines a light for us when all other lights go out. We can’t avoid the sorrow and the struggle, but we can endure more than we know with the assurance that God cares, God loves us, and God has given us a light that remains.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1954).

Sunday, February 16, 2020

A Bigger Perspective

February 16, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew5:21-37

One day Abraham invited a beggar to his tent for a meal. When grace was being said, the man began to curse God, declaring that he could not bear to hear God’s name. Seized with indignation, Abraham drove the blasphemer away.

When he was at his prayers that night, God said to Abraham, “This man has cursed and reviled me for fifty years, and yet I have given him food to eat every day. Could you not put up with him for a single meal?”

Sometimes we’re like Abraham. The things that people say and do make us so mad we could just spit. We don’t watch the news on TV in my house, mostly because we don’t want to go to bed angry. But I do read news stories during the day, on the internet mostly, and I try to process what I am reading productively, in a way that doesn’t burn me up with anger.

Sometimes, whether we admit it or not, we’re like the beggar. We say and do things that make others angry with us. And sometimes we purposely stoke the flames to get a rise out of the other person. “Don’t poke the bear” is a phrase that helps me refrain from intentionally egging on another.

God knows it’s hard to live with other people. Sometimes they just make us angry. Trust gets betrayed, we abandon one another, and we play fast and loose with the truth. It is so easy to break relationships, and so much work to build or repair them. But God also knows we need one another. We need support from others, and we need to offer support to others. We need family, friends, partners, people we can trust.

So God gave us some rules. God spoke through Moses and gave the Hebrews the Law, the commandments recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. And as long as the people obeyed, as long as they loved God and walked in the ways of God, they were blessed. Over time, the people disobeyed and broke trust with God, so God sent prophets to remind them of the choice between blessings and curses.

Then Jesus came, speaking to the crowds as the one who came to fulfill the law and the prophets. He took on some of the more contentious issues of his day and reinterpreted them. “You have heard that it was said… but I say…” The law and the prophets have only gotten us so far. If you want to know the kingdom of heaven, something more is needed. Following the letter of the law is not enough. Righteousness is to be found in the spirit of the law, the purpose behind the law, which is the building up of relationships based on compassion and love.

If you would be righteous, you must understand that when anger enters your relationships, you have the opportunity to choose between the path that leads to life, and the path that leads to death. You have the opportunity to seek out the other person and try to reconcile. You are given the choice between a relationship restored and a relationship destroyed.

Jesus takes the commandment against murder and directs our view to the anger that drives us toward punishment, retribution, and revenge. You have heard it said, “You shall not murder.” But I say, “What is it that drove you to the point of violence in the first place? It is anger which has gotten out of control.” Jesus doesn’t say that anger is wrong; anger is an emotion that all people feel. Rather, you will be judged by how you behave in your anger. Do you lash out, seeking a violent solution to your problems? If so, you are headed down the path that ends in murder. Do you seek to restore peace and harmony, and do the hard work of reconciling differences? Then you will be blessed with life.

Anger can also murder relationships. Insults are meant to cause pain. Differences left un-reconciled eat away at us causing divisions that widen into chasms. Jesus wants us to build bridges and fill in the valleys between us before it is too late, before the relationship has died. It is hard work. It takes tremendous humility and courage to approach someone when there is anger between us. But Jesus knows that love and compassion are more powerful than anger. Jesus tells us to be brave, when we remember that there is a break in our relationships, and do what is necessary to heal them. “Come to terms with your accuser” and you may be offered forgiveness.

Adultery is the betrayal of a relationship that should be based on mutual trust and support. Marriage is a bond that can keep us together in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, for better or for worse. But there are forces out there that seek to tear us apart. The betrayal may begin with lust, with the desire for another based not on love and mutual care, but on sexual desire. The betrayal may begin with neglect, when we stop trying to meet the needs of one another, or perhaps stop even asking what the other person needs. In biblical times, adultery was much more dangerous for women than for men. What were they going to do in that story from John’s Gospel to the woman caught in adultery? They were going to stone her to death. What were they going to do to the man caught in adultery? Leviticus outlines the punishment for both, but in the story in John, well, that part didn’t come up.

God knows that we cannot control every thought that enters our mind. But we can, however, choose where we focus our attention, and we can control how we respond to our impulses. Jesus knows that it can be hard to resist temptation, but it is easier if we separate ourselves from those things which cause us to sin. I think it is better to not take verses 29 and 30 literally, tearing out our eyes and cutting off our hands, lest we all go around blind and hand-less. But maybe we should click on another web page, find another part of the store to shop in, or seek the support of those who can help us to resist our temptations.

In ancient times, women were often considered more like property than people. The marriage laws allowed for the man to write a certificate of divorce dismissing his wife. The wife had no such right, by the way. A divorced woman was then left without legal protections. She would return to her father’s house – in other words, ownership of her returned from her husband to her father. She lost any personal property she may have had, and she lost her children as well, who were the property of the husband. And it would be much more difficult for the woman to remarry.

God knows it can be difficult to live with each other. But ending a marriage is often even more difficult. Now, if you have been through divorce, or know someone who has, you know the pain, the shame, and the turmoil it brings with it. I don’t want to cause you any more hurt than you have already experienced. There are situations, of course, such as an abusive relationship, when divorce is the only good option. But, I think what Jesus is talking about here is divorce done for frivolous, or lustful, reasons. This was much more common in that society. This was particularly true among the Romans, but it was common among Jewish and early Christian people as well.

God knows that marriage is supposed to be a life-long commitment, a relationship based on mutual care and trust, a rock that withstands the storms of life. Jesus points out here one consequence of treating marriage as a commodity rather than a relationship. A relationship which is meant to bring stability, trust, and support should not be treated carelessly. “If your heart turns away… you shall not live long in the land.” Make the effort to repent of your sins and forgive one another. Make the effort to treat one another as worthy of love. Your relationships deserve your best effort.

Integrity is the final topic Jesus covers in this passage. And Jesus knows we need help these days to speak the truth and deal honestly with one another. How can a society survive if “Yes” does not mean yes, and “No” does not mean no? If we are to live with one another, there has to be some honesty in our speech. Trust cannot be built on deception, broken vows, and false witness. It doesn’t matter what you swear by if you don’t mean it. Don’t swear by heaven, or Jerusalem, or even by the Bible. Just do what you say you’ll do, and mean what you say. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.’” As someone said recently “Right matters, and truth matters. Otherwise, we are lost.”[1]

If we are to live with one another, Jesus tells us that we must learn to live into the spirit of the law, rather than looking for loopholes. We must live with love and respect toward one another, and treat each other as worthy of our compassion and care.

God, help us to do the hard work of loving each other, even when we’re as angry as Abraham, or as anger inducing as the beggar. Teach us the kind of love that is promised in your kingdom, love that goes beyond following the rules and becomes a part of us, love that drives us to seek reconciliation and peaceful solutions to our problems, love that keeps us focused on our relationships of trust and mutual care, love that resists selfishness and does the hard work of forgiveness, love that speaks truth and values integrity, love that chooses life. Make us love others as you have loved us. Amen.

[1] Congressman Adam Schiff, speaking to the United States Senate, January 23, 2020.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Raise Up the Foundations

February 9, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20[1]

I used to read science fiction comedy by Douglas Adams, about this average guy from a town in England who discovers his best friend is actually from another planet. In one of the novels, they have to park their spaceship in a town on Earth near a sporting event. In order to keep the spaceship from being seen, they have to use an invisibility shield. They wrap the ship in an energy field called “Somebody Else’s Problem.”[2] You see, when it’s somebody else’s problem, you don’t really notice what’s going on and you can ignore it.
Now, as Americans, we enjoy certain inalienable rights; and individual freedom and opportunity are protected in our laws. The value that our society places on the individual enables us to achieve incredible things, allows us to do and be our best, and promises that every person has value – no one is expendable.
Those who serve our country and protect those rights, particularly those in uniform, know what it means to “Be all you can be.” And they deserve our thanks for their service. Several years ago, I read an article by General Stanley McChrystal, U.S. Army, retired, former Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. The article, “Step Up for Your Country,” was published in the January 31st, 2011 copy of Newsweek. McChrystal raised an important point about our rights and freedoms. He says, “As important as those inalienable rights are, there are also inalienable responsibilities that we must accept and fulfill.”[3]
A soldier knows a great deal about responsibility. If the unit doesn’t perform as a team, or if any member of the unit fails to do their job, someone is going to die, and it won’t be the enemy. There can be life or death consequences if anyone thinks something is somebody else’s problem. And the tremendous responsibility that comes with command in the armed forces has given McChrystal an important perspective on what many of us might dismiss as somebody else’s problem. He wrote, “We have let the concept of service become dangerously narrow, often associated only with the military.”[4] He continued, “This allows most Americans to avoid the sense of responsibility essential for us to care for our nation – and for each other.”[5]
Are there any Boy or Girl Scouts here today? You know something about responsibility as well. “‘Do a Good Turn Daily’ is a core Scouting precept. Scouting encourages young people to recognize the needs of others and take action accordingly. Scouting works through neighborhoods, volunteer organizations, and faith-based organizations to help young people appreciate and respond to the needs of others.”[6]
Shared responsibility for the well-being of our neighbors, our community, and our world is not as clearly defined in our laws. It is, however, quite clearly defined in our scriptures.
Isaiah’s people are trying to figure out what led to their exile in Babylon. They believe that they must have angered God, who punished them, and so they focus with zeal on worshiping God and over-observance of religious ritual. “Isaiah’s people appear to be very religious. They not only go to worship daily; they also fast frequently. The people complain that they have observed the fasts, but God has not answered their prayers. Isaiah has to point out that the wealthy are fasting on the holy days, but their employees still have to work.”[7] “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers.”[8] Their energy is misdirected, they are missing the point, and their fasting serves no purpose. “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?”[9]
Isaiah suggests that observing the letter of the law misses the spirit of the law. Worship is supposed to fill us with the power of the Holy Spirit, and charge us to go forth to bring the “Day of the Lord” or the “Kingdom of God” to fruition. Worship should remind us of our responsibility to our fellow family members, the children of God. Fasting is supposed to free up resources that could be used to serve others in the community. “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?”[10]
Both Isaiah and Jesus make the point that worship of God is about more than faithful observance of ritual. When Jesus says “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,”[11] he means that there is something more important than obsessive observance of the letter of the law. What God desires, offering food to the hungry, satisfying the needs of the afflicted, is what gets missed when our focus is on ourselves rather than on our responsibility to our neighbors.
In that Newsweek article,[12] General McChrystal described a situation he saw in Afghanistan. In that harsh environment, agriculture was sustained by a complex and extensive irrigation system using underground tunnels. This system was essential, and required labor-intensive maintenance. The members of the community understood their responsibility to do the work necessary to keep the system flowing. It was a shared task.
When the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, the system was damaged. Ironically, this resulted in private individuals digging their own wells and setting up their own systems, disrupting the community dynamic. What had been a unifying responsibility for all was now a source of wealth for a few – and yet another source of frustration for the rest.
In our own country, it is often more efficient and cost-effective to hire professionals to complete a project, but not if our objective is to shape our society with a sense of shared responsibility.[13]
Snow removal is a perfect example of this type of shared responsibility. Clearing the sidewalks so children can safely walk to school is the responsibility of all of us. And it’s more than just the sidewalk in front of my house – if the path ends in a snow-bank where it meets my property line, that’s a dead-end, not a safe and clear passage. Now, I have a deal with my neighbor, who has a bad back and a snow-blower, that I can use the machine and clear the snow from both properties. But ultimately our responsibility goes all the way to both corners. When it snows, if my neighbors and I work together, there will be a clear path by the next morning.
There are other examples, things that members of this congregation are already involved in. Serving at the MORE Food Pantry, or the Food Pantry in Huntley. Raking leaves and shoveling show for our neighbor with a bad back is one way our family takes responsibility for others. Loosing the bonds of injustice and letting the oppressed go free are more difficult duties, but not beyond the ability of people in this room, particularly if we work together.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”[14] Worship of God means to bring salt to the world. Salt is that spice that brings out the flavor of food. A life lived in worship of God can enhance our experience of the world, and help us bring out the best in others. Salt also preserves food. A worshipful life helps us hold onto our heritage and all that has made us who we are. Salt makes us thirsty. Worship of God can give us a thirst for justice and the desire to end oppression.
“You are the light of the world.”[15] To be told we are the light of the world encourages us to share our gifts and talents with others. “However, there is another reason for light to shine. There is darkness in life – external and internal.”[16] “The light is not given for our own personal enjoyment.”[17] We are given the light in order to go into the darkness, “to engage and walk through it, so that, in time, the light can overcome it.”[18]
To be the light of the world is to take on the responsibility to rebuild the ancient ruins, to raise up the foundations of many generations. To be the light of the world means that we repair the breach, we restore the streets to live in. To be the light of the world means that we recognize our shared responsibility for the well-being of our world in the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. To be the light of the world means that we see through what seems to be somebody else’s problem, and understand that we have a responsibility to serve one another in the name of Jesus Christ.
When we bring salt and light to the world, we raise up the foundations of something better. We bring glory to God and raise up the foundations of the City of God![19]  Amen.

[1] The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[2] Douglas Adam, Life, the Universe and Everything (Harmony Books, 1982).
[3] Stanley McChrystal, “Step Up for Your Country,” Newsweek, 31 January, 2011, 36.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Boy Scouts of America, from (accessed 2/7/2011).
[7] Brett Younger, “Homiletical Perspective” on Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 319.
[8] Isaiah 58:3b.
[9] Isaiah 58:5a.
[10] Isaiah 58:6-7.
[11] Matthew 5:20.
[12] McChrystal, 36, 38.
[13] Ibid., 38.
[14] Matthew 5:13.
[15] Matthew 5:14.
[16] Charles James Cook, “Pastoral Perspective” on Matthew 5:13-20, in Feasting, 336.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] The worship service concluded with the singing of the hymn “You Are Salt for the Earth, O People,” paraphrase by Marty Haugen, 1986, alt.; in The New Century Hymnal (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1995), 181.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Living Into the Beatitudes

February 2, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12

This is the beginning, according to Matthew. Jesus has been baptized, overcome temptation in the wilderness, and called his first disciples. He is already famous for teaching and healing. The crowds have gathered to hear what he has to say. And he begins with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). What is he trying to tell us? That it is a good thing to be poor in spirit? What if I am rich in spirit? What if I’m doing just fine?

He goes on. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (5:4). Well, that’s nice. Widows and orphans deserve to be blessed, what with all they’ve been through. Then things get a little more strange. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (5:5). Well that just doesn’t make any sense, now, does it? The bold and the strong, they’re the ones who will inherit the earth, obviously. You can’t get ahead in this world if you’re meek. You have to take what’s yours, and if you have to take it from someone weaker than you, too bad for them.

“Blessed are the peacemakers…” (5:9). There is a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) in which people at the back of the crowd are too busy talking to hear what Jesus is saying. “I think he said, ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers.’”

In our culture, if you’re peaceful, you’re likely to be seen as unpatriotic, or un-American. If you are merciful, you’re soft on crime. If you’re meek, you’re asking for someone to push you around. In our culture, competition, power, and fear are the driving forces. Even if you think the Beatitudes are a nice idea, it is all too easy to see them as sentiment and not a practical guide for living.

But Jesus wasn’t just saying how nice it would be if people were more kind. He wasn’t saying that we should just get used to how things are, put up with oppression and injustice, and wait for the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was saying that we should live this way. Jesus was saying that we should be meek, or humble, merciful, peaceful, and that we should desire to live in right relationship with God. And Jesus wasn’t just talking to the disciples; he was taking to the crowd, and by extension, to us.

What if we looked at the Beatitudes as a whole, with one thing leading to the next? What if we took these blessings seriously, and not just metaphorically? Can we try to understand the Beatitudes as a guide for living, a set of principles which are an alternative to the way we usually view the world through the lens of our competitive consumer culture? There are three principles for living that can be found in the Beatitudes, according to Charles Cook, Professor Emeritus of the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas.[1] The principles are simplicity, hopefulness, and compassion.

If we read the words as they are, and not try to layer meaning on them, they point to a way of life in which simplicity is valued. Those who are meek are humble. If you are humble, you are open to the idea that you don’t know everything. You are open to the idea that God has not yet revealed everything, and there is yet more light and truth to be found. The humble ones know that they are only a part of the bigger picture. It takes humility to understand that we don’t own this world; it was given into our care by God. In caring for the earth, we care for that which belongs to God.

In a world filled with things that can cause us to fear, we need courage. If we hear what Jesus has to say, if we live our lives with humility, peacefulness, and mercy, we will be blessed with courage. In caring for others, we find that we have strength. If we live within our means, rather than grasping for more and more, we find that we have been blessed with abundance, with all that we need to live and more. The way of simplicity can free us from our culture of greed.

Do you have hope that things will get better? Many people no longer believe that. As the gap between rich and poor grows wider, as the divide between those on the left and right grows deeper, hope for the future seems to be getting lost, and is replaced by cynicism. The mantra of cynicism is “That’s just the way it is, get over it.” That way of thinking takes these words of Jesus, “For you always have the poor with you” (26:11), and turns them into a pronouncement rather than a call to always recognize and care for those among us who are poor.

Who are the poor in spirit? In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20). When you have next to nothing, faith in God can be the most important thing in your life. But poor in spirit can also mean those whose spirits are broken. If you lived in Roman occupied Galilee in the first century, your spirit as a nation had been broken. You were, as a people, oppressed, downtrodden, and brokenhearted. Yet, you are still God’s chosen people. Remember that, and it can give you hope. Jesus echoed the promise of Isaiah 61: God sent him “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted (61:1).

Hopefulness is the second principle of living into the Beatitudes. Christ offers hope to the hopeless. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (5:6). The day will come when right will win out over wrong. When we live in hopefulness, we know that mercy, humility, peace, and love will one day be the norm rather than the exception. When we face the world with hope, we know that it is darkest just before the dawn, and that the dawn will come. Because we live in Christ, we know that even though the road ahead leads to the crucifixion, it will also lead to the resurrection.

Hopefulness is what empowers us to believe that God’s kingdom is coming, and righteousness will claim the victory. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10). These words inspire the kind of hope that moved the Pilgrims to set out for a new world, even though some would not live to see it. This hope caused the revolutionaries to set a course for independence, even though it would cost the colonies dearly in blood and treasure. This spirit of hopefulness allowed the abolitionists to keep fighting to end slavery against those who would use the same bible to keep the Africans in bondage. Hopefulness and faith in the kingdom of heaven empowered women to demand the right to vote, the descendants of slaves to demand an end to discrimination, and gay and lesbian people to demand the right to marry the ones they love.

The most powerful principle of living into the Beatitudes, the key to walking in the steps of Jesus, is compassion. Compassion is much more than pity. To pity another means that you feel sorry for them. Compassion is more than sympathy. To be sympathetic means that you share the feelings of another. To have compassion means more. It means that what hurts you hurts me. Compassion means that when you mourn, I mourn with you, and thus you may be comforted. We are in this together. You share my humanity. You are part of my family.

Compassion is the principle that led Jesus to break so many of the Laws of Moses. Compassion led Jesus to heal the man with the withered hand on the sabbath (12:10). Compassion led Jesus to touch the leper and heal him (8:2-3). Compassion led Jesus to perform miracles, such as feeding the five-thousand (14:14-21). Compassion gives us a hunger for justice and a thirst for righteousness. With compassion we can be merciful, we can seek peace, we can see the other as an extension of ourselves. With compassion we can love our neighbor as ourselves.

Compassion is the principle that is motivated by love. It was love that gave us Jesus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). It was love that carried Jesus to the cross. It is compassion and love that can give us the power to endure persecution for the sake of Christ. “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” (5:11-12).

When we live into the Beatitudes, when we allow simplicity, hopefulness, and compassion to guide our lives, we will be able to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). When we live in love, we know that the kingdom of heaven is near.  Amen.

[1] Charles James Cook, "Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 5:1-12" in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 308-312. Cook is Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology, Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas.