Disciples and Apostles in Lent

sermon for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6; Isaiah 58)

 

Disciples and apostles.

These are sometimes overlapping titles for those who hang around with Jesus. We most often think of a special set the 12 closest guys. But the terms are broader than that, and are also gender inclusive.

We might take the impression of a timeline to it, that people were disciples then became apostles, that one is BC (for Before Crucifixion) and the other AD (After Death), one with Jesus around and the other after he’s gone. But that’s not accurate.

“Disciple” is a word carried over from the Latin version of the Bible called the Vulgate, the commonly used Bible for almost 1500 years. Disciple is the Latin version of a word that means student or learner. In Greek, the word is “math.” So if you’ve had to study mathematics, you’ve done some learning and been a disciple (of one sort or another).

The term “apostle” copies the original Greek word meaning “send away” and was kept in the Vulgate. Interestingly (at least if you’re a dweeb like me), though that Greek “apostle” has stuck around as our Bible’s term, the Latin version is at least as familiar and is used in church. The Latin for one sent away is “missionary.” You are sent on a mission. Missiles are sent flying away. A decommissioned ship (or disciple, I suppose) is no longer sent away.

So, again, disciples learn from Jesus, and apostles are sent from Jesus.

The two terms come together at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel after the resurrection (if you’re willing to admit at the start of Lent that you know where this story is headed and what the larger point is). There Jesus gives a commission (again, a Latin word that means “sending together”). The risen Jesus says “Go make disciples of all nations, all peoples, teaching them.” He’s making his disciples into apostles, and the apostling is to disciple others; those who were taught are sent to teach.

But it’s not just at the end of the story that these two ideas come together. I’ve been talking through this because it seems they also lie behind our readings tonight and our perceptions of Lent.

First, though, we need to keep setting aside one misperception of Lent: that it is a season about sin, about guilt, somber remorse, and feeling bad that Jesus had to suffer to bear the burden that I rightly deserved as punishment from God. You will not, repeat won’t hear that preached at the MCC. It’s not only not what Lent is about, but it’s also a faulty view of the crucifixion, of what happened to Jesus and why. That’s neither saying that we don’t sin or that Jesus didn’t suffer. But the line drawn between those two is not helpful. It’s not true. It’s not the main message of Scripture. It’s sadistic and satanic.

Tonight we have the traditional intro and invitation to Lent, built around part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins this emphasis with the phrase “be careful you don’t practice your piety before others.”

I like that term “practice” to think about Lent, as a time to practice our faithfulness or devotion (if those are easier terms than practicing “piety”). This is a season where we get to work on what it means to be connected to God.

It’s not about getting closer to God, because nothing can separate you from the love of God. God is as near to you as every breath. Not a hair will fall from your head without God noticing. I’m not sure you can get closer to God. But this may notice the relationship, discover what it is to live into it.

So Jesus says we practice. He then gives what have become the standard practices of Lent, frequently known as Lenten “disciplines.” Of note, discipline and disciple are connected. Disciplines help us learn as disciples. They are tools for learning. Maybe, then, we practice at these to learn how much God loves us.

Jesus begins his invitation to practice by encouraging our generosity, giving alms. He reminds us that works of love and giving aren’t about getting a reward, like being noticed by others or receiving acclaim, or even about tax deductions. Jesus tells us to practice giving away what is ours in order to help others. He commends charity, a word connected to “grace” and “gift,” and therefore almost certainly connected to God.

Jesus next calls us to practice praying as another discipline, and he teaches us a prayer, a way to converse with God as our loving parent, concerned for our every need and more. We’ll be wading into that prayer as a focus throughout Lent, both here on Wednesdays and in House Church small groups.

The third practice Jesus promotes is a discipline of fasting. In our typical terms for this season, it’s about what you’re giving up. One root of this holding “fast” is in self-control. Another direction is clinging tightly to God. Pausing from feasts, a fast breaks up the routine of life-as-usual and can remind us of God. Through the Bible, fasting can be a sign of grief and hope in the face of God, or of humility, or repentance.

But Jesus and Isaiah tonight both remind us it’s not about the act itself. There’s nothing in being hungry or giving up treats that makes you closer to God. It’s not that misery loves the company of God or that you really challenged yourself.

This is where I want to return to the pairing of our terms disciple and apostle.

There’s plenty in the Sermon on the Mount and in these Lenten practices that could be private. Jesus says be careful you don’t do it to show off; that’s improper for practicing faithfulness. The disciplines of a disciple can be very private—between you and God. Not tooting your horn, but going to pray in a quiet place, where one hand doesn’t know what even the other is giving. Not to earn points, but to find true treasure.

Yet piety is also public, before others. But the reward isn’t selfish, serving your own interests. Prayer is about relationships: in forgiveness and needs and against empire. Is the fast God would choose just to be humble, to try earning credit with God, to sit around in ashes that label life filled with sorrow?

No, God wants fasting that shares bread with the hungry and breaks oppression. Those aren’t practices you can do on your own, in private. They are public piety, public faith. In your disciplines, you have a mission. As a disciple, you must be sent as an apostle.

I just found out in the phrase “practicing your piety,” that it isn’t really piety. The word is righteousness, or justice. So righteousness, Jesus says, isn’t just about looking good to others, being on the right side of an issue. It’s not self-righteousness. Faithful devotion may involve a very privately grounded connection to God. Yet it is also a public practice, practicing justice that rebuilds ancient ruins and restores streets worth living in. They are inseparable; living right with God means living with justice, “on earth as in heaven,” we’ll say.

So there you go. It’s a good program for these next 40 days. Practice living right, with God, neighbor, and creation. That is your discipleship, dear apostles. That is your mission, dear disciples of Jesus.

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Fall Down, Get Up

sermon for Transfiguration Sunday (Matthew 17:1-9)

 

Moses and Elijah. Kind of a big deal.

They were the two main figures from Scripture. The whole Hebrew Bible was summarized as “the law and the prophets.”

Moses was the guy for the law, getting to talk to God on the mountaintop, receiving the tablets of Commandments, guiding the people’s life into the Promised Land, out of slavery and into freedom.

Elijah was the greatest of the prophets, dueling against worshippers of other gods, standing against evildoer kings and queens, standing up for God and the people when the powers seemed so oppressive, seeking God’s way during a difficult time of idolatry, apostasy, selfishness.

So the careers of these two Bible superstars were really something.

Generally I’ve figured that having the two of them up on the mountain with Jesus was supposed to establish or verify his credibility. Kind of like endorsements in political races, that if an assemblywoman and former school board president endorse a candidate, that one must have some worth. Though if these were the prime celebrities of our Old Testament, then maybe it’s like a Hall of Fame. Like if Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron were hanging around the baseball diamond and they pointed with excitement toward a young prospect. (Maybe *Barry Bonds would’ve been trying to horn in from the baseball bleachers and maybe King David was hanging out behind a rock trying to claim he qualified for the Transfiguration mountaintop, too.)

Along those lines, I’ve often viewed this story as recognizing our tradition’s being impressed by Elijah and Moses, the two scriptural mega heroes, and this vision of the Transfiguration goes on to emphasize that Jesus shines brighter and dazzles more, and God’s voice comes interrupting specifically to direct you to listen to Jesus, the beloved Son.

But this week, in what we’re listening for, I found myself wondering a different point of this miraculous moment in the middle of Matthew. It was because I was thinking less about the storied stats in those scriptural superstar careers, less about how amazing the lives of Moses and Elijah had been, and more about their endings.

For Moses, his ending came right at the end of the book of Deuteronomy. The rest of his people were about to complete the exodus from Egypt and at long last come to their permanent home. They were on the east bank of the Jordan River on Mount Nebo looking toward the mountains of Palestine. Moses led them the whole way, and he would not get there with them, but he’s been to the mountaintop.

Deuteronomy ends with Moses handing off his role and power to his successor Joshua, and then he died 120 years old with undimmed eyes. The unusual ending is even more that God was the one to bury Moses someplace. Later stories went on that the angel Michael took Moses’ body up to heaven or that Moses hadn’t actually died and was claimed by God. A pretty special end of life.

If Moses seems not-so-standard, that the only one at his funeral was God, who also served as undertaker, or maybe an angel who served as whatever exhumer is opposite of undertaker (overbringer?), if those Moses details were wild, then the story of Elijah at the start of the book of 2nd Kings was maybe even wilder. He’s walking along with his successor Elisha, who refused to leave him. Elijah smacked the Jordan River with his cloak, and the water parted and they went through on dry ground and about then “As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”

Here on the Transfiguration mountain, we have Elijah of the “swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry him home,” Elijah who was claimed straight by God and never died.

On the mountain, we have Moses, the only one the LORD knew face-to-face. Moses who walked so closely with God that maybe God walked him right into the grave. Moses with “a band of angels comin’ after him, comin’ for to carry him home.”

Two guys who didn’t have a very standard human ending, who didn’t have death and burial like we expect, who didn’t have grief and loss and sadness and the decomposition of their flesh. Two holy guys, connected to God, and for that connection and that holiness apparently earning a different sort of ending. A happy ending.

And then we have Jesus.

Jesus who has just begun talking about his crucifixion. About being rejected. About being spit on. About being jailed and tortured. Condemned by the empire to their most shameful form of execution. Lots and lots and lots of suffering. And death.

If we thought this whole thing were about avoiding death, that if we could get close to God then it would keep suffering far away, and happiness close, if we viewed biblical high-rollers like Elijah and Moses as models of holiness in miraculous final escapes, then Jesus is going to point toward something entirely different. He could seem like the opposite of big deal characters Elijah and Moses. Yet in this mountaintop moment, we are pointed to Jesus and assured of his connection to God. His crucifixion won’t be a smudged mark that he is separated from God, abandoned, forsaken. As he heads directly into suffering and death, even as he is abandoned by humans, it is unmistakable that God remains steadfastly with him. He identifies God’s presence for us.

This amazing vision of the Transfiguration isn’t an escape from everyday life. Nor is it a hint of resurrection to come (since there’s no indication that Jesus will be glowing on Easter. The best portrayals will say he still looks pretty darn crucified, with holes punched in him.) If you thought the end of life for Moses and for Elijah portrayed some amazing relationship with God, even though the end of this life of Jesus will seem so awful and wrong and like everything you’d want to avoid, still in death God is with Jesus and Jesus is God with us.

In what this means for us, I also want to point to two words in the reading. The first is for when the three followers of Jesus fall on their faces afraid. That word for falling prostrate is the same one for when Jesus will pray just before his betrayal and arrest, his trial and death, when he’s in the garden of Gethsemane. He throws himself to the ground and prays to avoid it—“let this pass from me.”

This story today seems less glorious or happy as it says that, as we witness Jesus and this path toward his death, we too fall down in tearful cries asking that it need not be this way.

The response from Jesus today is a word that is also how God responds to the death of Jesus. Jesus says, “get up. Rise.” It’s the word for resurrection. Jesus gets up from the dead, is raised. It doesn’t mean the suffering disappears, that the hard is simply undone or ignored. It does mean God has something more to say.

Through it all, it’s worth remembering Jesus’ assurance “Don’t be afraid.” It may not be pretty, you may fall, tremble. But still Jesus comes to touch you. The divine word is with you: Rise. Get up. Live. God is with you.

That is worth Alleluias always.

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This Time It’s Serious

sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

[Jesus continued in the Sermon on the Mount:] “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders will deserve judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a sibling, you will deserve judgment; and if you call a sibling ‘You fool,’ you will have to answer to the Sanhedrin; and if you call a sibling a moron you will deserve the Valley of Slaughter. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you suspect that your sibling has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your sibling, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

We’re breaking apart this reading. This is one segment of a longer section in the Sermon on the Mount with the repeated formula where Jesus declares, “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you.” Today we hear four of the six (and unfortunately miss my favorite two, about turning the other cheek and loving enemies).

The four we do hear move through big topics, and it seemed like it would be worth holding them a bit at a time.

Each of these sections take what could be easy morality or conventional religious practice and Jesus makes us hold it much more intentionally. This time it’s serious, to make us examine our commitment in relationships instead of falling back to simple self-satisfaction while feeling all self-justified.

Starting with a chunk around the 5th Commandment, we would have lazy capacity to say, “I’m doing just fine, since I haven’t murdered a single person today!” We might start to think that only serial killers and homicidal maniacs are the ones breaking the Commandment, but that’s pretty limited applicability. The Commandment becomes practically worthless if we could ignore or disregard it so much.

So Jesus says if you’re angry or nasty to others, that is as bad as murder. With rhetorical flourish, he exaggerates to make a point, that if you call somebody names, you might as well go to hell.

He amps it up so much in concern for wellbeing in relationship, going so far as even if you think somebody may have something against you. There are stories with this verse of people not taking communion because of a yet-to-be-reconciled grudge. Remarkably, Jesus says how we relate to each other even precedes how we relate to God.

Martin Luther did something similar with the 5th Commandment in his Small Catechism, in saying that not murdering means “we are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”

You may not have committed murder. But if somebody was left homeless in the cold, or if they could use better health care, or if a better salary would give them more life (and how can we argue for a minimum wage, which is akin to saying What’s the least I can murder someone?), or if failing to offer a compliment or listening ear diminishes instead of accentuates life, well…

 

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

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

We’ll take these two pieces together, since in both of them we should hear that Jesus isn’t imposing some prudish morality, but commending relationships, with women as real participants, against objectifying them, treating them as property, where men can possess or get rid of them.

See, in the old version, the 6th Commandment against adultery was about a man not taking his neighbor’s wife, causing risk that offspring wouldn’t be his own. It wasn’t mutual, but very much patriarchal. Men were the ones who committed adultery, and they committed it against other men.

Similarly, only men could get a divorce, which, like throwing an old piece of furniture to the curb in the trash, divorce was disposing of property a man didn’t want anymore. Jesus won’t stand for that view. He insists that a husband needs to honor the relationship, the humanity of his wife.

The old form of just handing a wife a certificate of divorce precisely ignores the complexity of emotion and wellbeing, just as we understand the complexity of divorce, for the integrity and humanity of the people in the relationship.

Although our culture has come a long way in the place of women (as well as those outside the gender binary), with these words from Jesus, we can’t pat ourselves too quickly on the back. The need of #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements shows that neither secular culture nor religious institutions have done enough, that men still are committing acts of violent and abusive power. In phrases like “she dressed to deserve it” or “boys will be boys” and when conversation is so instantly about how a woman looks, about appearance and about body shape, we remain a horrible, awful long way from the good Jesus intends, for how we should be looking at each other as full people in the variety of our relationships, not trying to possess or control each other, relating not as objects to be dominated or dispossessed but as subjects fully with each other.

Again, with overstatement Jesus says our relationships are so important that—particularly across gender power differentials—if you can’t get it, pluck out your wandering eyeball, cut off your grabby hand. It would also be worth stating Jesus’ version in the positive: practice being better in relationship. See value and identity. Reach out with care. Do whatever it takes for the good of each other, the good of what it means to be connected also to God.

 

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

This one may seem like a relief, that we’re not talking about sex and gender anymore. But it may also be especially relevant these days.

This guidance from Jesus on swearing is sure not about cussing and a potty mouth. Around the 2nd Commandment, of not misusing God’s name, it’s not even exactly for taking it in vain by saying Omigod as an expression or for Chrissakes to curse. It’s more saying, “I swear to God.” Jesus is against that, because it manipulates God’s goodness for your purposes of coercion.

It was in the “Just Mercy” movie some of us saw last weekend, where a witness in a trial puts a hand on the Bible and is asked, “do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

It also hits national politics. Though our news cycle moves at the speed to make it an unretainable blur, I waited a week to talk about Mitt Romney.

As the Sermon on the Mount has been about taking the risk to live faith, to live it in the face of empire, to accept the challenge that it means to trust God most highly, there’s something powerful that Senator Romney explained he is very serious about his religion that his standing with God outweighed whatever political repercussions would come from breaking ranks to vote against President Trump. Certainly I wish that it wouldn’t have been the Mormon, but that ELCA member Joni Ernst or Christians would’ve taken their relationship with God so seriously that it overcame other partisan or ideological loyalty or convenience.

And yet, even while commending the integrity of Senator Romney’s devotion, with these words from Jesus, we should perhaps observe that the oath is a bad idea. That we would have to manipulate our elected leaders to tell the truth and be honest is disappointing to begin with, much less that it didn’t work and ended up treading God underfoot, turning God and faith into a political tool.

What Jesus indicates is that we should be able to be honest enough that we don’t have to swear. Yes means yes. No means no. How can we be the sort of people who live this way?

As Phil Haslanger pointed out this week in a Cap Times column related to the next part of the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone in this country would define themselves as Christians, but for those of us who do, the burden is on us to find a better way to act.”*

* https://madison.com/ct/opinion/column/phil-haslanger-loving-your-enemies-is-a-challenge-but-it/article_57ef6112-5f20-5ab5-b276-63687c137894.html

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Salty & Bright

sermon on Matthew 5:13-20; Isaiah 58; 1st Corinthians 2

I taught the weeping willow how to cry.*
Ken Burns did the series on country music this fall, and I haven’t gotten past it yet. I keep digging in and discovering more old music. I also keep trying to work some of it into a sermon.

For one example, back in December, there was a line from a Psalm kinda echoing lyrics, “as long as the moon shall shine,” from a great song with a really sad theme of the U.S. government breaking a treaty with the Seneca Nation that had been around since George Washington. The sermon ended up focusing on trees and not the moon, so I couldn’t quite shoehorn in the country music.

But today I thought I would: I taught the weeping willow how to cry, cry, cry.

You don’t need to know any more about that Johnny Cash song. My point is that it may be a good lyric, but J.R. sure didn’t need to teach a willow tree how to do anything. It’s instinct. It’s just what it does. You might teach a dog to sit, but you can’t teach an old willow new tricks. It weeps because that’s who it is and that’s what it does.

Martin Luther was an arborist in this way. When Jesus talks about a good tree bearing good fruit, Luther reminds us it is a simple descriptive statement, not an instruction. Horticulturally, you can’t wag your finger at an apple tree until it grows bananas.

Adapting agriculture as a human metaphor, what makes you a tree ready to bear good fruits is simply that that’s how God has made you, blessed you, filled you and nurtured you so that you do it naturally. Instinctively. As a tree, you’re not taught how to bear good fruits. You don’t need lessons or instructions. No sermon to cajole you into being a better tree, to try a bit harder to blossom really beautifully and give it a go with the best fruits you can possibly muster. God makes you a good tree; you bear good fruit. Voilà! End of story.

I know some of you are big thinkers, adversarial for argument’s sake. You want to place a certain confidence in human capability and say that even though you might not be able to teach a weeping willow, and you might not be able to teach an old dog, that you yourself are willing to learn. You want to be better. You’ll make the effort maybe to become a better tree. I’ll say no. You can try, but…

Next week in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will declare we can’t so much as force one hair of our head to turn from white to black. Again, you might quibble that Jesus hadn’t heard of hair dye. My niece can change all the hairs of her head a rainbow of colors weekly. Yeah, but…

Still later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will proclaim that we can’t, by worrying, add a single hour to the span of our lives. That one may hit fairly hard, because we remain pretty self-certain that we can follow enough doctor’s orders and exercise regimens and dietary nuances and health plans to add years and decades to our lives. Jesus says we can’t add an hour, that it’s all given by God, not our fretting.

So if it’s all God given, maybe we’d be helped best with the less animate examples from Jesus today: You are salt. You are light. What light does is shine. What salt does is…be salty.

Again, if you are still trying to teach the dog tricks and try to cultivate the tree to be better, if you change hair color or try to maximize your hours, then with these examples Jesus is point blank saying: it-is-what-it-is. Light either shines or it’s not light. You don’t need to tell it to shine. It just does it. We cannot make ourselves light. Jesus wasn’t implying we should be brighter intellectually (as Paul will show us) or that we should try to beam ourselves up.

Salt that’s not salty seems clearly to be not salt. Maybe it’s pepper. Maybe it’s bland. Whatever it is, if it’s not salty, we can pretty well define it as not-salt. And Jesus wasn’t telling you to spice it up a notch by being saltier.

You are salt. You are light.

I’ve spent all this time reiterating this because almost everything I read this week seemed to miss the point. Again, we’ve got this self-reliant tendency that wants to keep it within our own capacity. Everybody seems to want to jump in with these words from Jesus and start explaining: Okay, here’s how you should shine more, brighter, better. If you’re going to try being a light for Jesus, here’s what you need to do. Or if you’re more in the salt camp, here’s how to get salty and increase your salinity and be tastier.

Poppycock! Claptrap! Hogwash! Malarkey! Codswallop! And other funny dismissive phrases!

Jesus doesn’t say this as an instruction, a project, something you need to do. He says it as a description: You are salt. You are light.

This reading may still strike some of you with Ronald Reagan’s catchphrase making us as the United States into a “shining city on a hill.” In that case, he intended it to show off, to draw attention, to say “hey, look at us.”

I was reading last month that the use of that image in this country goes back another 350 years before Reagan.** In 1630, John Winthrop used this same passage to talk about the faith and practice of new settlers coming to this land. But for him it was a warning. You won’t be able to hide what you’re doing. Our example of that this week was the Iowa caucuses. If you want to be first in the nation, you better get it right because everyone is watching.

Whether Jesus intended the exemplary or the cautious, the world is watching. People will get a taste of you.

So if you are already salt, already light, if you’re not needing instruction to be more or to try harder, maybe you’re still wondering what these are. You recognize actual salt and light, I think, but it might be tough to offer a definition or description of light and of salt.

One starter is that these words from Jesus come right after the Beatitudes. Maybe you are salty and bright by living into your privileges of being dispirited, sad, nonviolent, merciful, hungry for justice, or persecuted peacemakers in the godly empire. Since those indicate blessings, it’s a reminder that you’re receiving your identity from God.

Jesus goes on today to assure that he isn’t trying to get rid of scripture. It seems important, that Jesus wants to connect to the Bible. Maybe in briny brightness you are connected to the Bible.

With that, we hear from Isaiah that it’s not pious fasting, but a voice raised to call out wrongs. What God chooses is to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house. Remove the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil. These may come bursting, beaming out of you.

One of my favorite phrases in the Bible is in this passage: “you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” I was part of some planning for Wisconsin with a national group called Repairers of the Breach, which is working to carry on Martin Luther King’s last Poor People’s campaign now. Still more than that, though, the phrase “restorer of streets” makes me think of Tom Walsh’s career for our city’s traffic and transportation.

Or if that makes you feel like you need to try harder or be something special, someone special, then we hear from Paul that this isn’t about lofty words of wisdom. I’d personally prefer to keep striving for such words. Instead I’m supposed to keep offering foolish words. It similarly means you don’t need to worry if you don’t have it figured out. We know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. It’s not our intellect that makes understanding, but a gift from the Spirit. She gives what you need.

Maybe in the end we simply observe that salt and light are necessary for life. As you are salt and light, you are blessed in your identity to sustain life. Maybe there’s something you recognize in these phrases. You may know it when you see it, even if you don’t always see it in yourself. But it’s there. There’s no avoiding it. It’s just who you are, who the Spirit is making you be, what God has blessed you to be, what you’re formed into freshly as we gather here. You are salt. You are light. You can’t be anything else. So be salty and bright.

 

Hymn: You are the Seed (WOV 753)

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpeOipJmsXM

** https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/puritans-as-a-city-on-a-hill-daniel-rodgers/

 

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Meditative Reflections on the Beatitudes

to go with Taize liturgy
(click here for bulletin: A02 02 Taize)
Matthew 5:1-12, as well Micah 6:1-8 and 1Corinthians 1:18-31

 

Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain and gathered his followers around him[1], and he opened his mouth, teaching and saying to them,

“Privileged[2] are the dispirited[3], because they are part of God’s sort of[4] empire[5].”

Jesus had the good sense to give these pithy thoughts and not blather on. But I’m non-sensical to add words. I’m also without enough common sense to leave alone what may be some of your favorite words and have re-translated them[6].

You are familiar with Beatitudes as Blessed are those. Or maybe happy.

I said “privileged.” Though we may pursue happiness, and may have foggy notions of blessing, privilege offers clarity that this isn’t something you do. It’s fortunate that that’s who you are, like concepts of “white privilege” (though incidentally, given his other examples, Jesus would likely counter and say “Privileged are the black, the people of color.”) Privilege means a special benefit that you didn’t earn.

In this first unexpected declaration, as we start our worship service, Jesus says it’s a privilege to be dispirited, to be hopeless. If you imagine that strong faith is a prerequisite for gathering here, for coming to church, or being connected to God, Jesus says you’re better off if it seems like everything goes wrong, like there’s no point, like you don’t want to continue on. You’re all set for where God’s work happens.

 

“Privileged are the saddened, because they are to be encouraged.”

“Rejoice and be glad?” That refrain (“Blest Are They,” ELW 728) particularly seems not to square with sadness, this Beatitude’s blessing of those who mourn. Clearly it doesn’t work to say that if you’re sorrowful, then you should get happy, or be glad to be sad. When you’re down, I’m sure not telling you to buck up.

But this may re-attune you to the source of strength. Jesus proclaims privilege that he will be with you—including in this community—to comfort, to encourage. In time of need, you may know the one offering relief, comfort, strength, blessing, and yes, also joy; Lord, have mercy. Kyrie eleison.

 

“Privileged are the nonviolent[7], because their way will[8] control this world.[9]

Moving from a song sung by angels at the birth of a helpless outcast baby Jesus (“Gloria in excelsis”), we hear this next Beatitude, about a way that appears weak. This word is translated throughout the Bible in different ways: downtrodden, humble, oppressed, lowly, poor, broken-hearted, afflicted. The typical here is “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

Those who have been tromped under foot somehow coming out on top is a strong word of reversal, of God’s restorative justice.

But Jesus says still more in the Sermon on the Mount. The choices aren’t just violent control that harms or passive submission that gets hurt. He commends nonviolent resistance, a way picked up by Gandhi, a practice embodied by civil rights protestors who were spit on and arrested and sprayed with fire hoses. They were getting hurt. They were oppressed. They were trodden down. But their way, Jesus says, is mightier than the sword, stronger than empire, destined to win, to be the way of the future, the way of God, the way for life in this world.

 

“Privileged are those hungering and thirsting for justice[10], because their appetites are to be quenched.”

You may know hunger that won’t be satisfied with the persistent wrongs of the world. You may yearn for things to be set things right. To make it as we know it should be, as we want them to be, practically able to taste how it could be.

The prophet Micah orients this to our relationship with God in that beloved answer to the question, “What is required of you? Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.”

With Jesus, we would not take it as an instruction. Again, the Beatitudes aren’t telling us what to do. They are stating our reality. Here, justice isn’t something to have to do. It’s what you may be hungering for, starving, aching, with an appetite that can’t be quenched. Except by God.

 

“Privileged are the helpers, because they’ll be helped[11].”

Or blessed are the merciful.

I know mercy can seem condescending. Like I’d have the ability to smush you, to punish you, to be cruel and instead I don’t. Of course, we don’t like the idea of a cruel, punishing God.

But if we’d have the concept of a God of power, a God on high, a God who would have the ability to smush you, the Beatitudes are set against that. God is with the downtrodden, not those trodding down.

The same word used in the Beatitudes was in Micah: love kindness. Love mercy. Love helping. God is recognized not in smiting or barely restraining a raised fist. God is in kindness, assistance, shared struggle.

In another way, that is also in the amazing passage from 1st Corinthians. God chose what is foolish and weak, what is despised. God chose the nonviolent way, in order to disprove power, the ways we think we have it all figured out. There’s plenty that’s high and mighty and self-assured and holier-than-thou and claiming to be right and trying to get ahead, to win.

But we proclaim Christ crucified.

 

“Privileged are those with clean hearts[12], because they’ll recognize God.”

We keep trying to get to God. Micah said it’s not burnt offering or sacrifice. Paul proclaimed it wasn’t wisdom or signs. We try to pretty ourselves up, to be holy, to think that gets us closer. We go stumbling off in all the wrong directions for God, deciding we need to clean ourselves up and wanting to look good.

We don’t often choose to dwell in dusty, ugly corners, where we’d be with the cross, the one who is down in the dumps, the suffering one caught underfoot.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. The prayer from Psalm 51, echoed in this Beatitude, is not something you get to do, and you may not even have chosen to, have wanted to. You couldn’t scrub your heart. The Holy Spirit poured into you is what reveals God, a God you recognize in the surprises and low moments and with you in ways you would never have prepared for.

 

“Privileged are the peacemakers, because God will call them son—daughter: child[13].”

This has been one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible. I connect it to that nonviolence mentioned earlier and anti-militarism, the new way from Jesus.

There’s also some tough work of reconciliation in this. In times of conflict, it would be easier to go with fight or flight than to seek understanding, to maintain relationships.

But for this, the Beatitude reflects a first relationship. This is language that matches the baptism of Jesus, when God’s voice announced “this is my beloved Son.” This voice echoes in your baptism: you are a child of God and God loves you. It is your calling, how you’re called.

This first relationship sets everything else right, for total wholeness. For shalom. For salaam. It makes peace. Dona nobis pacem.

 

“Privileged are those hunted[14] [on account of] justice, because they are part of God’s sort of empire.”

You might notice that we close out the Beatitudes in the way we began: being part of God’s sort of empire.

It reminds us that being on God’s side, following God’s will, being blessed, isn’t about things going along as a piece of cake in the way you might wish. This says you can be doing right, can be aching for God’s justice, can be trying to help the world square with God’s vision and be the sort of place the reveals the presence of God, and still you’re likely to get hurt for it. Even hunted down. Persecuted.

Jesus isn’t telling you that having people out to get you is great, is what you’re after, is the point of this faith. Persecution isn’t the privilege. But Jesus does realize that living in God’s sort of empire is going to put you at odds with other empire, with the political powers, with economic clout, with cultural definitions, with self-seeking.

It’s no fun to give up your Saturdays to be striving for justice. It’s no fun to wake up early to serve Porchlight breakfast. It’s no fun to protest. It’s no great joy to be with people who are down.

…Actually, that’s a lie. There’s plenty of fun in all those things! They may just not have the immediate appeal of other choices, of typical time-users, of normal life that isn’t seeking first God’s sort of empire.

For some, coming to church on Sunday morning to be here with the rest of the dispirited may be persecution enough, since living into this faith may involve arguments with your family or even in yourself about it. Jesus doesn’t say that’s a treat. But he commends that the struggle is worth it.

 

“You’re privileged when you’re insulted and hunted and they give ‘fake news’[15] about you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because that is earning God’s sort of wages[16], just as that’s how they hunted the prophets before you.”

The last Beatitude. Different from the rest. The rest speak about “those.” This one says, “you.” You are blessed. You are privileged. You may have heard it before in the others. This one says you will get what you deserve. You’ll have earned it.

Well, kinda. It’s still not you. It’s something you’re given. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. Receive God’s blessing:

“What is new in the Gospel is not so much that God is a Source of goodness, but that human beings can and should act in the image of their Creator:
‘Be merciful, as your Father is merciful! Be children of God,’ who are able
to respond to evil with good, to hatred with love.
By living a universal compassion, by forgiving those who hurt us,
witness that the God of mercy is present at the heart of the world, in our midst.
The presence in your hearts
of divine love in person, the Holy Spirit, enables you to live in this way.”[17] Amen

 

[1] skipping “sit to teach” for modern context

[2] see Kittel v4p365, trying for familiar modern term

[3] depressed? down-hearted? not-very-spiritual? for-whom-things-aren’t-going-great?

[4] avoiding “heaven” as location for the empire

[5] clearer sense of conflict/confrontation and contemporary emphasis than “kingdom”

[6] adapted from 2017 version

[7] see http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/epiphany4a/

[8] “are to/they’ll” emphasizing future passive

[9] heir à responsibility, share of, take possession of; ghn as land, nation, earth (non-heaven)

[10] more familiar than “righteousness”

[11] trying for paired terms around elehmon (gracious/graced)

[12] Psalm 51 :10

[13] baptismal calling

[14] more active of “sought/chased” and more familiar than “persecuted/oppressed”

[15] term currently in news from Trump, for “falsely say bad stuff”

[16] not heavenly reversal, but active suffering for acting godly

[17] adapted from Taize, https://www.taize.fr/en_article344.html

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