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  1. Sermons : Beatitudes 5: Blessed Are the Merciful

    Fourth Sunday in Lent

    Psalm 23
    Matthew 5:7

    We are in the heart of our Lenten Sermon Series on the Beatitudes. These majestic phrases at the beginning of Matthew are the keynote address of the Sermon on the Mount, which covers chapters 5, 6, and 7….

    ….While I have you, I want to put a plug in for our Wednesday Lenten opportunities. This Wednesday at noon we will gather at St Stephen’s Episcopal Church as we continue our neighborhood worship and lunches. These are really powerful times of worship and partnership with our Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and other Presbyterian brothers and sisters. Do whatever you need in the afternoon, and come on back. Helen Harrison and her team have a delicious set of meals that roll right into the evening book study to complement this series. Even if you haven’t read the book yet, come join us to deepen the conversation. Let us pray…

    Christ of blessing, as you gathered with your people, as you called truth and life into being, do so again for us today. Entrust us with a glimpse of your wisdom, so we might follow you with boldness. Amen.

    Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

    A couple of Saturdays ago a handful of confirmands and their mentors, Rebecca and I, hopped on Bubba the bus to drive around and see some Habitat houses. Pete Jones, Habitat guru extraordinaire, took about 10 of us through Lakeside, then east of downtown, circling through both small Habitat neighborhoods, as well as communities with Habitat homes dotting the streets. After about an hour we pulled up in front of Kim’s home. It was this fall’s Women’s build that our own Lucy Stokes and Dorene Palermo and others had a lot to do with. Kim had just been in a couple of weeks, still unpacking boxes, walls still bare as she worked and took care of her daughter. She was full of an expressive energy. She talked of working side by side with the women on her own home, of the light fixtures donated, of the joy of painting the hall herself. Then she talked about the neighborhood, filled with different kinds of people, some getting on their feet, others struggling. Nearby are a couple of houses for formerly addicted folks. Homeless people walked by. She talked about getting to know them, listening to their stories. She picked up a bunch of styrofoam containers on the floor of her kitchen. She told us that on Sunday evenings she has family dinner for the neighborhood. People who rent the homes nearby, those who are homeless, addicts and former addicts, come by for dinner. She fixes food; hands people a plate as they gather. But there are some who won’t even come in – didn’t know how to act, she said, how to be in a house that someone owns. They don’t feel comfortable inside, but take their Styrofoam and stand on the sidewalk, talking with friends. I grew up in a large family on a farm, she said, and this is what we did. It just felt right to do it here. Kim remembered that, even as life gets hard, it wasn’t all about her. That she had been given a gift not to hoard, but to share. That there were people right in front of her in need of a simple act of hospitality and compassion, as they gather around a table.

    Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

    Erik Kolbell, in the book that guides our study on the Beatitudes on Wednesday evening, says that we are a nation of superlatives. “As they did before us,” he writes, “we laud the biggest, fastest, boldest, and best…. In sport we fete the winner of the big game and in business the closer of the big deal.”1 Even this Final Four weekend, no one is cheering the loser. The runner up doesn’t get to cut down a single net.

    And so here, once again, Jesus calls us to be extraordinarily different from the world. We have journeyed up the mountain to sit with the disciples, as Jesus proclaimed with His very self that a new kingdom has, in fact, come near. Jesus proclaims that not the wealthy or privileged, those who have it all together, but the poor in spirit are the ones who are blessed. Those who understand, because life has stripped it all away, that trusting in anything other than God is trusting in an illusion. Jesus proclaims that those who mourn, who in their woundedness lay their vulnerability before God, will be comforted. Jesus proclaims that not the bold and the strong, but those who are meek, who live with humility and trust, will in fact inherit the earth. Jesus proclaims that in a world filled with the desire for more and more, as we consume and consume and consume, that only as we hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice, will we truly be filled.

    And so a vision begins to emerge, that moves in deeper today: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. As all of these beatitudes, the first thing they do is offer a critique of our society so bereft of mercy. We are so quick to violence, on the playground, in our neighborhoods, or in the Middle East. Even when we don’t use physical violence, we are quick to slice someone to shreds with our words, to make another feel small, to lack the grace to take a little more time, to listen. We get angry, offended, impatient. About 6 weeks ago I ran by the Starbucks down the hill to pick up coffee for a day-long staff retreat. I was so pleased with how responsible I had been, ordering it the day before, getting there early. And it wasn’t ready. The line was 6 or 7 deep, the employee who seemed all by herself spilled something. Finally, one of the managers saw me and came out, apologetic. We had an encounter with a homeless person and one of our employees. We were trying to help him, but he didn’t seem safe and, we tried to avoid it, but we had to call the police. And I felt very small. And I went and sat as patiently as I could, knowing there was a lot more going on than I had thought. It was an important reminder that every situation has a story, everyone’s life is more complicated that we might prefer it to be. Treating people like object is a barrier to mercy. But seeing the other as someone not too different from us opens a door to mercy, allows us to access just a bit of grace.

    The Greek word eleos suggests the connotation of pouring out, the way we might pour out a flask of oil. Mercy is a pouring out. Mercy is when, Howell suggests, I unscrew the lid on what is precious to me and pour it out on you. 2 Similar forms of this same Greek word are used in Matthew to mean the giving of sacrifices, the giving of alms. 3 But that root eleos can be defined two ways. One is in the mercy that we have been talking about, from one person to another, trying to help relieve another’s burdens, like Kim does each Sunday at her table. But the other way this root is used is mercy as an attribute of God. 4 We are called to be merciful, to be generous and compassionate and kind, because that is how God is to us. We worship a God that gives us infinitely more than we deserve, who pours out grace upon us, who is mercy in the core of God’s own self. Maybe that is why we receive it when we give it. You probably noticed this is the only beatitude that is reflexive. As you offer mercy – in traffic, in difficult relationships – you also receive it, in understanding, in transformed relationships, in glimpses, perhaps, of the God whose own mercy empowers our own. How might you be merciful this week? To whom might you need to show mercy? Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy In a moment nine eighth graders will stand up here and proclaim that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. These youth will affirm their faith and trust in God, promise to be a part of this community, to share their gifts here and beyond. But please do not assume that today is just about them. They are great, don’t get me wrong, but they have been seeking to keep these promises long before they make them in front of us today. They have made them over and over, at shelter meals and on trips to Charlotte or Atlanta, around here and in the halls of their schools. Keeping these promises isn’t easy, and they will falter, just as we do. Things will get busy, life will happen. Too often you hear folks talk about confirmation as an end in itself – jumping through the hoops to satisfy parents who promise they won’t make them go to church ever again afterwards. Just do this for me honey, please. And on the rare occasion that happens, here or anywhere else, I don’t really blame the youth. I blame us. I blame families for not making discipleship a priority. I blame pastors for not reaching out to them as they drift. I blame churches and their leaders for not calling them to a deep and profound commitment, for modeling for them that Jesus Christ transforms lives and communities, for not stopping these youth – or the person next to us – and saying to them, We need your gifts, we need your voice, you can help us, you have something to say, your faithfulness matters to us, and to God.

    Because there will be a time for them, for us all, I suspect, when we need to be reminded of what happens around here. When life will deal what it will deal, often through pain. Someone we love will get sick and die. We will feel pushed to the side, discarded, exhausted. And we will need to be reminded of the God who IS mercy, who is full of grace and compassion for us, and who calls us to care for each other, to care for the world, like a quick phone call to a friend, like inviting another to share their gifts, like Kim handing a plate to folks on the sidewalk. So they might be fed for the journey. As we are reminded, as we hear Christ whisper…blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

    All praise be to God. Amen.

    1. Erik Kolbell, “What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life,” (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003), 84. 
    2. Howell, 65. 
    3. From the cross-reference function of Bibleworks 5: Software for Biblical Exegesis and Research, Matthew 6:2,3. 
    4. Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, (New York: American Book Company, 1889), 203. 

  2. Sermons : Beatitudes 4: Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

    Beatitudes 4: Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness, Rev. Christi O. Brown

    Third Sunday in Lent

    Psalm 107:1-9
    Matthew 5:1-6

    Matthew 6:33

    (audio recording not available)

    Many of you likely remember the popular Rolling Stones song from the 1960’s “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”  In this song, Mick Jagger croons on about no matter where he looks or how hard he tries, he just cannot find satisfaction.  My guess is Old Mick had not studied the Beatitudes, or he would have discovered—as we read this morning—that it is the ones who seek God’s righteousness who are truly fulfilled and satisfied.

    Yet even for those of us who have read the passage, it can be a hard concept to grasp.  One of the reasons is that righteousness is not part of our everyday modern vocabulary.  We don’t really understand what it means, much less how to yearn for it.  Righteousness conjures up images of monk-like holiness, which can seem fairly unobtainable for normal folks like us.

    The important thing to note, however, is that the original Greek form of the word refers not to our own righteousness—indicating that we do not have to seek to be a holy sin-free monk—but it actually refers to seeking the righteousness of God.  It connotes not only uprightness, justice, and integrity, but a right and just relationship with God as well. 1 It points us back to our covenant relationship with God established in the Old Testament.  This righteousness we seek is a yearning to walk with, be in friendship with, and to know God better—all of which in turn helps us establish respectful relationships with each other as well.

    Though we are focusing on the fourth Beatitude of hungering and thirsting for righteousness this morning, there is a reason we read the previous three Beatitudes as well.  God’s righteousness is not one simple thing to strive for, but rather the sum of the whole.  It includes poor in spirit, mourning, and meekness.  And it also includes the Beatitudes that follow—mercy, pureness of heart, and making peace.  In fact, the 10th verse states, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” indicating that those who are blessed do not simply yearn for all of these things, but take action in order to implement them, fully aware they might be persecuted for these very deeds.  Hungering and thirsting are active, tangible verbs.  This is a call to not only yearn for God’s righteousness, but to put our faith into action.

    This all-encompassing message of the Beatitudes that Jesus proclaims appears to be in strict opposition to the message secular society sells us today.  The Beatitudes indicate those who are blessed are those who are not in power, are not rich, and are not beautiful.  Imagine the title of a soap opera based on the Beatitudes.  Instead of “The Bold and the Beautiful,” it would be “The Meek and the Lowly.”  “The Bold and the Beautiful” actually celebrated 24 years on TV this week.  It is the most-watched soap in the world with 26.2 million viewers and has won 31 Emmy Awards.2 I wonder how long-running, how many viewers, and many Emmies “The Meek and the Lowly” would win?

    And yet, this is what Jesus states we should yearn for.  But what does it really mean for us to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness in today’s world?  There is a saying, “You are what you eat.”  This is true for our bodies, and it’s one reason the local food movement is so big right now.  If we eat healthier foods, we have healthier bodies.  And just as food affects the health of our bodies, so our hungers affect the health of our souls.  Theologian Richard Neibuhr believes that once you the answer the question of what you hunger for or desire above all else, then you’ll know what your little “g” gods looks like. 3 This begs the question, “Where are we seeking our satisfaction, and what is the ensuing state of our souls?”

    All too often we hunger and feed on unhealthy things.  We seek our satisfaction in stuff that we feel directly, positively, and immediately impacts us.  Yet often the effects of these things subside as fast as they come, and we’re left empty and our hunger ensues.  As Chris indicated in his sermon several weeks ago, we should not be satisfied with the status quo, but we should keep searching for true satisfaction, for God’s righteousness, hungering for the world to be better, and committing to making it so.

    I personally spent far too much of my 20’s hungering for the wrong things.  Though strong in faith, I was still tempted and wooed by the secular notions of success and satisfaction, literally feeding on both unhealthy food and ideas.  I understood what Mick Jagger was singing about.  Seeking idealized notions of beauty, I consequently suffered from a compulsive eating disorder.  I ate more than enough but was never filled.  Striving for outwardly perfection but always falling short internally.  Enduring vicious cycles of loss, gain and shame, I was never truly happy, much less satisfied.  I was surrounded by loving friends and family, but I kept a pretty good secret and therefore often felt completely alone and dissatisfied.  And no matter how rich, how sweet, how healthy, how salty, how natural, or how gourmet what I ate was—it was never enough.

    I would surmise there are very few of us here this morning, living in this land of plenty, who have ever known what it feels like to be truly physically hungry, at least for more than a few hours.  I was astounded by the statistic on the Crop Walk last week that read, “The average American consumes six pounds a day, while those in the poorest countries eat 2-3 ounces.”   What disparity.  Though many of us don’t experience empty stomachs, I would guess there are plenty of us in this consumeristic society who do know what spiritual emptiness feels like.  In a country with a plethora of physical eating disorders, could it be that we also suffer from spiritual disorders?

    Spiritual anorexia would be when we never feast on the Word for nourishment.  Our souls are depleted, lacking nutrients, weak.  Think about the pictures you’ve seen of those who are physically malnourished and then imagine your soul in that state of deterioration and emptiness.

    Spiritual compulsive overeating would be when we do consume the Word, maybe even with great fervor, but with no purpose—no end in mind.  We just go through the motions, leaving our souls bloated, lackluster and forlorn.

    Spiritual bulimia would be when we gorge on the Word, but end up purging by dismissing it as not applicable to our lives today.  The lining of our souls are left torn, dehydrated and weak.

    So how do we healthily feast on the Word, how do we seek God’s righteousness and our full satisfaction, not in a disordered way, but in an ordered way of hungering?

    A bishop who lived 1700 years ago in what is now modern day Turkey sheds light on this subject.  Gregory of Nyssa commented on this Beatitude that just as we must distinguish between healthy and unhealthy food for our bodies, so we must distinguish between healthy and unhealthy food for our souls.  And when our desires go beyond the limit of lawful need, we too are tempted to turn stones into bread, to do that which is instantly gratifying.  He goes on to remark (and remember this is 1700 years ago), that none of the things that are coveted in this life for the sake of pleasure will satisfy those who run after them.  None of the things that are coveted in this life for the sake of pleasure will satisfy those who run after them.

    People can spend all their time pouring themselves into this abyss of desire, adding pleasure to pleasure, yet never procuring pure satisfaction. 4 When we obsessively seek these pleasures and fall into the abyss (and we all do at some point—none of us are alone in this), it is then that it is most helpful for us to remember that it is Jesus who is the Bread of Life and Living Water.  It is the grace of Christ that becomes solid food to the truly hungry.

    Sara Miles learned what it meant to hunger and thirst for righteousness and to rely on God’s grace.  A self-proclaimed  atheist who wandered into a church as a middle-aged adult, Sara received communion, and found herself transformed.  In that moment she did not discover a religion based on good behavior or piety, but rather a faith centered on real hunger, real food and real people.  Her hunger for God’s righteousness was raw and ravenous.

    Within a few months of her first communion, she opened a food pantry in that very church—piling groceries on the church’s altar to give away to those who most needed it.  Unlike most charities, however, there were no qualification forms required to receive food.  Everyone was welcome at the table—including church ladies, schizophrenics, bishops and thieves.  Running the food pantry at the church was messy, heartbreaking and simultaneously beautiful.  It was the living communion of Christ.

    In her book Take This Bread, Sara stated she found the hard work rewarding because “To feed others means acknowledging our own hunger and at the same time acknowledging the amazing abundance we are fed by God.” 5 She described the food bank worship service with the smell of incense and wet cardboard and slightly rotten bell peppers; and fifty out of tune voices.  A small child was lifted up on shoulders to see the minister break the English muffin.  And it was in that poignant moment when she realized why Christians imagine the kingdom of heaven as a feast; a banquet where no one is excluded—where the weakest and most broken, the worst sinners and outcasts, the poor in spirit and the meek, both the self-righteous and those seeking God’s righteousness, were each honored guests who welcomed one another in peace and shared their food. 6

    Sara got a call from a man who had never stood at this table, but who had heard of it.  He wrote a check to the food bank for a quarter of a million dollars.  But this rich man was so spiritually hungry himself that through tears he asked Sara for a prayer to pray.  She gave him the one she had written for the food pantry worship:  “O God of abundance, you feed us every day.   Rise in us now, make us into your bread, that we may share your gifts with a hungry world.” 7

    Friends, how is God rising in you?  What do you hunger and thirst for above all else?  Where do you seek your satisfaction?  What do you feed on?  How do you share your gifts with a hungry world?

    Seeking God’s righteousness is our hungering and thirsting turned into action.  It means being in right relationship with both God and each other.  It is an ordered way of hungering, being fulfilled by the sustaining satisfaction of God.  It is a yearning not for our little “g” gods but for our big “G” God.  It is avoiding the abyss of desire.  It is celebrating the living communion of Christ every single day.

    When we seek God’s righteousness, all these things are added unto us.

    Alleluia, Amen.

    1. Barclay-Newman, Greek-English Dictionary.
    2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_bold_and_the_beautiful 
    3. Kolbell, Erik.  What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) 76. 
    4. Plumpe, Joseph C. and Johannes Quasten (eds).  Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, vol 18. (Westminster: Newman Press, 1954).  “St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes” translated by Hilda G. Graef, 126. 
    5. Miles, Sara.  Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion.  (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008) 116. 
    6. Ibid, 158. 
    7. Ibid, 247. 

  3. Sermons : Beatitudes 3: Blessed Are the Meek

    Second Sunday in Lent

    Psalm 37:1-11 ; Matthew 5:5

    We continue our Lenten Sermon Series on the Beatitudes. These majestic phrases at the beginning of Matthew are the keynote address of the Sermon on the Mount, which covers chapters 5, 6, and 7. It is a vision statement of sorts, a preamble, the way Christ gives us of thinking about the world, His world.

    We are gathering around these texts in worship together through to Palm Sunday, and will work in partnership with the Wednesday evening study that began this past week. Come join us to continue the conversation. Let us pray…

    Christ of blessing, as you gathered with your people, as you called truth and life into being, do so again for us today. Entrust us with a glimpse of your wisdom, so we might follow you with boldness. Amen.

    Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
    The Word of God for the People of God.
    Thanks be to God.

    Ruby Bridges was just six years old when in 1960 she stood before a judge who ordered her to go to first grade in the William Franz Elementary School. No black child had ever before stepped foot upon the hallowed white ground. Ruby recounts: “my mother and I drove to school with the marshals. The crowd outside the building was ready. Racists spat at us and shouted [horrible things].” One woman screamed at me, “I’m going to poison you. I’ll find a way.” She made the same threat every morning. And this was Ruby’s routine for much of the year – go to school with Federal Marshals, stoically walk past the incensed crowd…learn all by herself in a classroom where every single white child had been withdrawn from school, and then go home just to do it all over again…that was first grade.

    One day, there was a break in her routine. Her teacher, Mrs. Henry, noticed Ruby walking toward the school and the protesters. But then she stopped, turned toward the howling crowd and seemed to be trying to speak to them. Finally, she stopped talking and walked in. Mrs. Henry immediately asked Ruby what happened; why did she try and talk to such a belligerent crowd. Ruby irritatingly responded that she didn’t stop to talk with them. “Ruby, I saw you talking,” Mrs. Henry pressed. “I saw your lips moving.” “I wasn’t talking,” said Ruby. “I was praying…I was praying for them.” Ruby had stopped every morning around the corner from the school to pray for the people who hated her. But on this morning she had forgotten until she was already in the middle of the malevolent mob.

    After school that day, Ruby bolted through the crowd as usual and headed for home with her two companion federal marshals. After a few blocks and with the crowds behind her, she paused as she usually did to say the prayer that she had repeated not once but twice a day — before and after school.

    Please God, try to forgive these people.
    Because even if they say those bad things,
    They don’t know what they’re doing.
    So You could forgive them,
    Just like You did those folks a long time ago
    When they said terrible things about You.
    1

    Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

    This might be my least favorite beatitude. We don’t like meek, do we? Meek is the kid in the back who won’t talk to anyone, meek is the awkward adult that we aren’t sure how to engage. We are taught, from the beginning to avoid being meek. Be strong and commanding and in control. The meek person gets left out on the playground, gets beat up in the locker room after school. The meek guy doesn’t get the girl. The meek miss the job opportunity because they don’t step right up, don’t sell themselves particularly well. The meek end up filled with untapped potential, in the corner, alone.

    Digging into the language further complicates matters. The Greek, praus, really does mean meek, gentle, mild.2 This is the only time this particular word appears in the New Testament. Back into the Hebrew, it appears numerous times in the Psalms – appearing variously as poor, meek, the oppressed. 3 An animal whose wildness has been tamed, disciplined, having rendered him gentle, James Howell notes, would be called praus. The meek person shyly hangs back when others are stepping forward. 4 Meekness is passive.

    But that assumes that we have some say in our situation. “The meek in Jesus’ crowd may not have chosen meekness; meekness is frequently forced upon you by circumstance. In Matthew 5, the meek are those treated by the world as nobodies. Think of the mentality,” Howell again reminds us, “of a slave woman on a Southern plantation, or the posture of a beggar on a street in Europe, or the stare from a disease-ravaged child in Africa.” The child, alone in the hallway, scared to enter the classroom. The older person sitting in a wheelchair by the nurses’ station, unsure of what exactly is going on. A Japanese family standing in line for water. “To those who have no power, who have nowhere to turn and no one in their corner, Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the meek.’” 5

    This, naturally, is tremendous word of comfort. Like with the poor in spirit, like with those who mourn, Christ is reminding us, again and again and again, that He is uniquely present with those the world forgets, dismisses, ignores by the side of the road. But these beatitudes all cut a couple of ways. They remind the suffering of the way they are embraced. They call us to be a people that seek out those Christ loves. But they also offer a challenge. When you are forced into meekness, when things fall apart around you, these words are profound comfort. But for the rest of us– folks who look like us and live in the neighborhoods we live in, Jesus presses us to embrace meekness. For Jesus, it seems, meekness was something akin to humility. Both verses 5 and 6 (blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness) draw on Psalm 37, which Mary Beck read a moment ago. Meekness, in the psalm, refers to those who are powerless and yet trust in God to save them, those who renounce retribution and live faithfully and with expectancy. 6 Tom Long concurs, suggesting that meekness is patient trusting that God will act in due time. 7 This is not a quiet submission, not assuming that everything that happens has to happen, not a resigned, cliché, ‘well, this must be God’s will.’ This is a patience that is rooted in humility – that knows none of us own truth. That none of us have full knowledge of God’s grand design. That, regardless of the circumstances and the pain. Regardless of the exhaustion we feel. Regardless of the fact that half of the children in the 34 county area of the food bank serves are on free or reduced lunch. Regardless of the death toll in Japan. That the moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends towards justice. That creation, and our lives, are something with which God can be trusted. That God is somehow underneath it all.

    I had the privilege of being a part of a couple of really interesting interfaith conversations this week. At First Presbyterian on Monday a professor of Hebrew studies spoke on the ways the Christians, Muslims, and Jews all understand Abraham – and how those differences provide for us an important window into the ways these three great faiths relate. The second was on Thursday, when I walked into Duke’s chapel for a conversation between Dean of the Chapel Sam Wells, and Imam Feisal Rauf. Imam Rauf is best known as the leader of the Muslim community in Manhattan, hoping to build a community center there, a handful of blocks from ground zero, the former site of the World Trade Center. And they sat, in nice chairs right in front of the communion table, sitting in the light of the   windows, the delicate artistry drawing your eyes up to the ceiling in that magnificent space. They talked about the political football the community center had become, and how it dropped off the radar so quickly after the midterm elections. Imam Rauf said that in a meeting with families of those who died on 9/11, they asked him to get out, to spend time  traveling around America, to get to know it and allow us to get to know him. They told him he wasn’t near as threatening when they actually talked to him.

    Both men talked about their faith, church and state, the way religion draws the best and worst out of us. It was really powerful, exactly the kinds of conversations the church ought to be having. And they both kept circling back to these same two pieces of meekness – humility and trust. Rauf said that we must get to know each other, as the world gets smaller and smaller. He was quick to complement Christians, saying we can teach the world about love for neighbor, at our best, about love and compassion for another. About being inspired by our faithfulness. He joked about a Christian friend being humbled by Muslims fasting for Ramadan. We give up chocolate for Lent and it drives us nuts, he said, you guys fast for a month! Dean Wells told a story about being on his honeymoon in Morocco. They went on a tour of a magnificent set of dunes, looking out to the sea. So beautiful, holy. And they got to the top of these dunes, and all of the Anglos were praying to the God of Nikon, he said, taking pictures for their friends back home. And he walked over the side of a dune and his tourguide had rolled out his mat and was praying. He had heard the call to prayer from the closest village, and had dropped to his knees in prayer. And I was so humbled, he said, challenged to dig more deeply into his own faith tradition, awed by the faith of another. And I realized, he said, turning to Rauf, that maybe I can become a better Christian by you becoming a better Muslim. That maybe we can engage our deepest
    convictions, yet move towards a common vision.

    There are times when the church must be bold. There are times when we must stand up andproclaim that the ways the white, southern church has treated African Americans and our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is contrary to the message of the gospel. There are times when we the church must decry the rush to war, to the scapegoating of Muslims as the root of terror and evil. There are times when the church must say the poverty that remains is unconscionable, and the church cannot stand idly by. But the kind of faithfulness  to which Jesus calls these disciples here is one of powerful meekness, leaning towards the world, deeply rooted in  humility, in trusting God to be God. The world is too quick to listen to the loudest voice. As the church debates theology, as we struggle with coworkers, as we seek the best for our kids. As we confront the times in our own lives when we feel powerless, desperate, afraid. It is there that you must remember…Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

    All praise be to God. Amen.

    1. The Ruby Bridges story is compiled from a first person account found at
      http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aaworld/history/spotlight_september.html and a third person account found at http://www.everystudent.com/wires/aprayer.html from the Rev. Jarrett McLaughlin’s paper on I Corinthians 1, shared at The Well’s 2010 gathering in Davidson, NC. 
    2. Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, (New York: American Book Company, 1889), 534. 
    3. Psalm 25:9, Psalm 34:2, 37:11, 76:9, 147:6, 149:4, also Job 24:4. From the cross-reference function of Bibleworks 5: Software for Biblical Exegesis and Research
    4. James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006), p 47. 
    5. Howell, 47. 
    6. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005), 133. This reference comes from the Rev. Jessica Tate’s paper on this text for the 2010 gathering of The Well in Davidson, NC. 
    7. Tom Long, WBC:Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p 49. Also from Tate. 

  4. Sermons : Beatitudes 2: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

    First Sunday in Lent

    Isaiah 61:1-7 ; Romans 8:31-39 ; Matthew 5:4

    Perhaps this sermon should come with a warning:  We are going to talk about loss and grief, and since most of us have experienced that, this sermon may possibly elicit some tears.  But here is the good news.  It is okay to cry in church.

    In fact, I think it ought to be okay to cry in church not just today but any time.  This is a sanctuary, a safe place, a haven, and here we can lay our true selves before God, and hopefully be comforted by the holy presence that this place represents, as well as by those around us.

     

    A former governor of Oregon, Barbara K. Roberts, has written a very helpful book about facing death and loss, after the death of her husband, Frank, from lung cancer.  The book is called Death Without Denial, Grief Without Apology. Barbara shares part of her story:

    “Frank died on Halloween and he would be interred on his birthday, December 28th.  I brought him home for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Construction workers were finishing a new room at the mauloleum where his remains would be placed in a few more weeks.  But especially during this season, I couldn’t face the thought of Frank’s urn in the dark and lonely mausoleum vault.  Frank was home for the holidays. But I couldn’t tell anyone.  So I stood crying in the lovely big bedroom, alone with his ashes, the devastating memories of his death – and my secret life of grieving.”

    “And then I did what I did every afternoon.  I walked over to his urn, put both hands on this lovely art piece, and said, ‘Hi Honey, I’m home.’  In this room, in this sanctuary, I could still talk to Frank, report about my day, kiss his photograph, and wrap myself in his robe.  Here, holding the urn in my lap, I could tell him how I struggled through each day without him.”  (Roberts, pp.2-3)  Do not think you are crazy, or let anyone tell you that you are, when you do things like this, she says, and:

    “If you are questioning whether it is okay to grieve in your own way, then I give you permission to weep, weep loudly.  Take his sweatshirt to bed.  Talk about her and to her.  Keep pictures in the living room and set an empty place at the table.  Watch old movies and videotapes that show that familiar face.  Hug a pillow and rock yourself.  Put your feet in his shoes or wear her ring on a chain under your clothing next to your skin.  Cry out his name in the night, visit her grave as often as you need to.  Do the things that help you through a day, a week, a year, two years.  Through all of this remember, ‘It takes are long as it takes.’”  (Roberts, p.7)

    “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” said Jesus.  William Shakespeare said, “Give sorrow words.”  Grieving, or mourning, (and we will talk about the difference between those two in a moment) means that we have risked enough to love.  In the book about the Beatitudes that we will study in our Lenten series, What Jesus Meant, Erik Kolbell says that Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor himself, in speaking about the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust, said that “the opposite of life is not death but indifference.”  (Kolbell, p.45).  Kolbell continues this thought by saying:

    “Life is affirmed in grief because to grieve means something has stirred our passions, asked us to care deeply about it, given us the courage to give a portion of our heart to it.  Love is painful because it risks loss;  indifference is tragic because it risks nothing.”  (Kolbell, p.45)

    Loss is a part of life.  Whether it is the death of a family member or close friend, the loss of a job that has given us meaning and supported our family, the break-up of a marriage or a cherished friendship, all of us experience the grief of loss at some point in our lives.  Some of the “experts” on grief distinguish between grief and mourning.  They say that grief is more internal; it is mental suffering, the feelings that come with any loss:  shock, anger, denial, pain, confusion, isolation, etc..  And mourning is more external.  It is the outward expression of those feelings of grief, the lamenting, to use a biblical type of word.  Mourning is the funeral and the eulogy, the tears we shed at the service; it may be placing a rose on the altar or the casket, or scooping dirt over the ashes in the memorial garden.  Mourning shows our grief to the world around us.

    We frozen Presbyterians are not very good at expressing our feelings.  We are not alone. In general, it is no longer very acceptable in our American society to spend a lot of time outside of the funeral service showing our grief.  We expect people to “get over it,” and move on, or to at least do their grieving in the privacy of their own homes.  We are generally uncomfortable with the outward expression of sad feelings.

    And yet here is Jesus, in this extraordinary sermon, telling us that those who mourn are blessed.  In Jesus’ day, mourning was almost an art.  There were often hired mourners when someone died, not just at the burial but for the hours and days, perhaps a week after the death.  Mourning was expected at the display of the corpse and at the funeral.  Women sang dirges, men eulogized the dead and beat their chests and heads, and stomped their feet. Grief was expressed with the whole being.  Even in the early days of this country, the expression of grief had more depth. We know that widows traditionally wore black for months, perhaps years, after the death of a husband.  Such practices have largely gone away, as we push mourning away, and act as if everything is alright within hours of a loss.  We have lost the compassion that allows us to mourn in public.  We want our world to put on a happy face.

    “Blessed are those who mourn,” says Jesus, “for they will be comforted.”

    Biblical scholars think that, while perhaps also acknowledging the personal losses that we all experience and grief, Jesus may be referring to something bigger here than just the grief that affects you or me.  Jesus did not say “Blessed is the one who mourns.”  This is expressed in the plural, in the sense of community, as when we grieve over the hurt in the world around us. When we see news like we have been watching this weekend, of the earthquake and tsunami devastating Japan, and heading towards American soil as well, when we watch the riots in Egypt, when we hear news of murders and abuse, or of people dying of cancer or AIDS, we grieve for those we do not even know.  We hear the concerns on our prayer list, and we cannot help but grieve when we see that a young woman is at Duke for a double lung transplant, or a young friend of our youth is struggling with cancer, that church members sit with their family members in ICU or in Hospice care. We lament with prayer for our fellow human beings.

    This community mourning, says scholar Tom Long, “grows out of an awareness of the difference between the world as it is and the world as God wills it to be” (Long, p.48).  Long reminds us of the commercial on TV some years back, where the camera begins scanning a typical American landscape, very beautiful, but keeps scanning back towards the highway, as we see trash and litter all along the road, destroying the scenery.  Then the camera focuses on a native American solemnly looking at the mess, and we see a lone tear fall from his eye.  This is how God must feel, Long points out, and how we Christians should feel, as we look at the world at times, as we see the spoiling of God’s creation, and also the deep pains people suffer.

    If we dare to care about others, we risk hurting.   Often times we avoid caring, so that we will not hurt. Again, our society encourages this lack of feeling. Violent movies and video games tend to make us more immune to pain and suffering, rather than more attuned to it.  We are encouraged to go after whatever makes us feel good, rather than allowing ourselves to feel the depth of emotions that might hurt.  And when we do hurt, we quickly jump to use pills or alcohol or other stimuli to drown out the feelings or lift our spirits.  Perhaps Jesus is telling us that, at times, it is alright to feel great grief, and even to be able to express it, to mourn.

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

    Our word for comfort comes from the Latin “fortiere,” meaning “to justify.”  In Greek, the word used for “comfort” in this passage is “parakleo, which means “to exhort, to comfort.” Sometimes in the Greek Scriptures, the word Paraklete is used for the Holy Spirit, meaning the Advocate or Comforter. Parakleo has a wide range of meaning, according to the Greek lexicon.  It can mean to beseech, as in calling on the gods in prayer, or to exhort and encourage.  To exhort sounds negative to us, but for the Greeks it would imply speaking not sharply or critically, but urgently and seriously.  For Christians, it would also mean speaking in God’s name, and with the Spirit’s power.  Comfort, for Christians, includes a vision of the salvation that Christ brings with the resurrection and the coming completion of God’s kingdom.  (Bromily, p.778)

    “Comfort, o comfort my people,” Isaiah quotes God as saying, as the people of Israel yearn for restoration from exile. And, in the passage we read this morning from Isaiah, the prophet declares comfort for all who mourn, giving them “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display [God’s] glory…”  (Isaiah 61:2-3).  Yes, grief will come, but there will also be comfort.

    Perhaps those who have known grief are better prepared to comfort others who grieve. Those who care enough to grieve over the hurts of the world are more motivated to act in ways that will bring changes and provide comfort. I think of John Walsh, who after the murder of his 6 year old son, sparked the creation of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and used the TV show “America’s Most Wanted” to solve crimes and put thousands of criminals behind bars. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who grew up with the pain of prejudice and segregation, and risked his life to help so many people move towards freedom and equality. Sometimes our deepest hurts, our deepest feelings, can motivate us to help others with more energy than we could ever imagine.  And in helping, we too are helped.  Without forgetting our loss, we can nevertheless find joy in our lives again as we help others.  In comforting others, out of the depths of our own pain, we can find that we are also comforted.

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

    The greatest comfort for Christians is a future one.  Many who suffer in this life do not find comfort, perhaps, until the next life, the kingdom to come.  We can think of Jews dying  in concentration camps in Germany, or of enslaved African Americans suffering in the early years of this country.  Maybe we can even remember family members or friends who never seemed to find comfort in this life, who struggled with drugs or alcohol, or with psychological demons.  Perhaps they even died tragically. “They will be comforted,” says our text, in the future tense.  Our greatest comfort comes in the knowledge of the suffering servant, the risen Savior, who knows as deeply as we do the pains of this earthly life.  “For we do not have a great high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin”  (Hebrews 5:15).  As the Romans 8 passage reminds us, we always have with us the love of God. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”  (Rom. 8:34).  Will divorce, or loss of job, mental illness, or disease, or earthquake or tsunami, separate us from God? “No, in all these things we are more than conquerers through him who loved us,” says Paul the apostle. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”  (Rom. 8:37-39).  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

    We all grieve at times in our lives, for our own losses, and for the losses in the world around us.  Certainly we all grieve for Japan today.  Perhaps we should acknowledge our grief in public, mourning, for instance, for those who have lost their lives so tragically.  For in grieving we show that we care.  In caring, we show that we love.  In loving, we risk feeling hurt.  And yet in loving we live as Christ lived, and as God wants us to live in community with one another, with all of God’s creation.  There is indeed much to mourn.  Yet from the Source of love, there is, and always will be, also comfort.

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

    Thanks be to God.  Amen.

     

    Bibliography

    Bromiley, Geoffrey W., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., MI, 1985)

    Kolbell, Erik, What Jesus Meant:  The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life (WJKP, KY, 2003)

    Long, Thomas G., Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion)  (WJKP Press, KY, 1997)

    Roberts, Barbara K., Death Without Denial, Grief Without Apology:  A Guide for Facing Death and Loss (NewSage Press, OR, 2002)


  5. Sermons : Beatitudes 1: Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

    Transfiguration of the Lord

    Matthew 17:1-9 ; Matthew 5:1-3

    Today we begin a slightly expanded Lenten Sermon Series on the Beatitudes. These majestic phrases at the beginning of Matthew are the keynote address of the Sermon on the Mount, which covers chapters 5, 6, and 7. It is a vision statement of sorts, a preamble, the way Christ gives us of thinking about the world, His world.

    One really important thing to note, scholar Eugene Boring reminds us, is that the indicative mood of the beatitudes is to be taken quite seriously. They are NOT, ‘you will be blessed if…’, but ways Christ names what IS. Blessed ARE these among us. Now. This is about what Christ calls true, perhaps naming the marks of the church. 1 This series will continue through to Palm Sunday, and will work in partnership with the Wednesday evening study that will begin in a week and a half. Come join us to continue the conversation. Let us pray…

    Christ of blessing, as you gathered with your people, as you called truth and life into being, do so again for us today. Entrust us with a glimpse of your wisdom, so we might follow you with boldness. Amen

    Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    Our plane landed in Indianapolis right as the storm blew in last Sunday evening. It was a bit bumpy, through the darkness and fog. About 350 of us gathered at Second Presbyterian Church there to ask one simple, yet really big question: “What is next for the Presbyterian Church?” We have all heard the complaints – maybe even done some ourselves – about the loss of membership denomination-wide, the loss of power and prestige; we have heard the groaning about the price of 35 or so years of contentious debates about ordination. But, for those of us who gathered and struggled, we began to wonder if something new was happening. We joined in powerful worship, had plenty of time for conversation groups, or simply to catch up with old friends over a cup of coffee. Big churches and small, seminary presidents and seminary students, presbytery execs and the church press, we talked about diversity and technology, about empowering new leaders and holding accountable the present ones. It helped that we didn’t have to solve anything just yet, didn’t have to vote on anything at the end of the day. Though a really quick 48 hours, I left with a sense of gratitude for so many gifted leaders, and a deep hope for our church. Maybe God still has plans for our broken church, for this part of the family we call the Presbyterian Church (USA). Maybe there are some things we can still do. Maybe things could be different. Maybe they already are…

    The Beatitudes are about vision. Matthew begins his gospel by reaching back, through a genealogy with names we know – like Ruth and Jesse and David – and names we don’t – like Joram and Eliakim and Zadok – all of this to tell his community to whom they belong. Matthew’s church, Jewish Christians recently expelled from the synagogue, were trying to figure out who they were in a world that was changing so quickly. Matthew orients them, and their Lord Jesus, in a long chain of faithful people, filled with the Spirit of God. Jesus’ story begins, naturally, with his birth in a stable, with wise men following a star, with an escape to Egypt. John the Baptist appears fully grown, proclaiming repentance, baptizing all comers, even Jesus. The heavens open after the baptism as Jesus’ ministry begins with temptation in the wilderness, with the facing of difficult questions, with a reminder of the One in whom he is to place his trust. Disciples are called from their nets and them, like a shot, we are off and running, on the hillsides of Galilee, preaching and teaching and healing, the crowds gathering in anticipation. And then it was time. Great crowds, Matthew tells us at the end of chapter 4, followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. Excitement grew as they wondered. Who is this Jesus? What is he about? Something wonderful seems to be happening, but what does it mean? This is the function of the Beatitudes, to instill them with vision. And not of the way things can be just a little bit better, but of an entirely different order. These beatitudes, these ‘blessed-are’ statements, blend wisdom and prophecy. Eugene Boring describes the form as wisdom because they proclaim the blessing of those in fortunate circumstance based on observation and experience and prophecy because they play in the tension of present and future, already and not yet. 2 Remember, they are NOT, ‘you will be blessed if…’ Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They are ways Christ names what IS. Even now. This blessing comes because of the authority of the speaker, sitting on the mountaintop. 3 And this teacher, Jesus, is ultimately the one who embodies these blessings—so they become an invitation to follow because this is who Jesus is, what friendship with him looks like, what oneness with God looks like. 4

    This vision begins to develop first by what the Beatitudes don’t say. James Howell, a pastor in Charlotte, has written a helpful little book called “The Beatitudes for Today.” An important interpretive lens he uses – and that we should as well – is how these sayings hold up a mirror to our society, turning all of its values upside-down. He says it is so important to note that Jesus didn’t say:

    -Blessed are those who climb the corporate ladder; they will be blessed with a comfortable retirement.
    -Blessed are those born into fine families; they will enjoy countless advantages.
    -Blessed are those who shop; they will own neat things.
    -Blessed are those with a fine education.
    -Blessed are the good-looking, blessed are those who satisfy their desires. Blessed are those who have what they need, seem happy, live in great neighborhoods, have some amount of power and control over their lives.

    But Jesus doesn’t say that. It doesn’t make sense, almost to the point of being ridiculous. Not blessed are the wealthy and powerful and strong, but blessed are the poor in spirit. The meek. The mourning. Those who seek peace and compassion, who make space for others. Those are things we don’t want to be, generally, that we do our best to avoid. You don’t get ahead that way, Jesus. Surely he must know.

    Yet he climbs the mountain. Matthew’s readers would know that this was a holy space, like Moses went up the mountain to receive the law, like Jesus and his disciples would again later in the text for the Transfiguration, that we also read and celebrate today. Special things happen on the mountain. And Jesus announces a blessing. And it doesn’t make sense. We all know what it means when we hear someone say, ‘Bless their heart, but…’ In the south that is condescending, code for pity. It’s not a good thing. But Jesus is saying that God has taken an interest in the poor in spirit, in the meek and mourning. That God is being active, diving in, getting God’s own hands dirty, with us and for us. Blessed connotes in Greek soteria and in Hebrew shalom. 5 Salvation, well-being…not superficial happy, but deep contentment, freedom, peace. Howell suggests Jesus describes blessedness as “being near God, being in sync with God, snuggling up close to truth, committed to follow in Jesus’ way.” 6 Not because of their circumstances, but because of God’s strength, surrounding them, sustaining us.

    And in today’s first phrase, Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who are poor in spirit. Tom Long says this could be paraphrased “spiritual beggars.” “This beatitude indicates that those who have come to the end of their own resources, who know they cannot sustain hope and purpose out of their own strength, and who have thrown themselves on the mercy of God will not be abandoned. They have already been given, through the continuing presence of Christ, the kingdom of heaven.” 7 This beatitude includes those who literally poor, bills come due, sleeping in the shelter downtown. But it is also broadens to include all of those on the margins, alone, sick, suffering. It may even include us sometimes, as nice as things look on the outside, feeling that desperation gnawing away. And Jesus reminds us that things aren’t as they seem, that those who may seem like nothing, no one, unimportant, are blessed, loved, cherish by God. Even in their suffering. Even in their deep loneliness. And that the church is called to meet God in those places. Where the poor in Spirit are, God is. Under the bridges, in the alleyways, in the lonely living rooms of beautiful homes where everyone thinks everything is okay. As we all try our best to maintain that illusion. When we keep our eyes wide open and pay attention to one another. They are blessed, so that we might be blessed, so that Christ might bind us all together.

    I saw a story last week on the Today Show about Jean Wilson. Jean is 82, and every day for the last three years she has called the same Dominoes pizza in Memphis, Tennessee, to order a large pepperoni pizza and two diet Cokes. Every day, except a few Mondays ago. Her regular driver, Susan Guy, came in Monday morning, and discovered she hadn’t called in a couple of days. “I have to go!” she remembers saying. He manager, unsure, tried to talk her out of it. She told him to clock her out, that she was going. She knocked on the windows, banged on the doors. She checked with the neighbors, who hadn’t noticed anything different. She called 911, and rushed back to work. She ran by later, to see the paramedics and police. Jean had fallen in an interior hallway, and had lain on the floor for three days. She was tired, and dehydrated, but is expected to make a full recovery. The police officer told Guy that Wilson “probably didn’t think anyone would call. She asked who called, and [we] said, ‘Domino’s, a pizza delivery driver.’ And they said she smiled a really big smile.” 8 Because someone noticed. Because a regular person paid attention to someone else.

    The poor in spirit can mean a lot of things – brothers and sisters standing at intersections, or in the house next door. In places forgotten to many of us. And we are called, once again, to live into the vision Christ proclaims. Who do you need to look out for? Who do you miss in the pews you need to call? I know you all sit in the same place. How can we, poor in spirit as we may be, be open to the different set of values that Christ proclaims, that Christ himself embodies? Ultimately, the beatitudes are about vision, about seeing the world in all its Godgiven fullness, in all of its possibilities, the kingdom breaking in, with us, even now.

    Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    All praise be to God. Amen.

    1. Eugene Boring, “Matthew,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p 177. This reference comes from the Rev. Jessica Tate’s paper on this text given at the 2010 gathering of The Well, Davidson, NC. 
    2. Boring, from Tate. 
    3. Tom Long, WBC:Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p 45-46. 
    4. James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006), p 1. 
    5. Boring, 176, from Tate. 
    6. Howell, 32. 
    7. Long, 46. 
    8. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/41734324/ns/today-today_people/ 

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