February 18, 2019
Jesus died penniless. Roman soldiers cast lots to divide among themselves Jesus' only possessions--the clothes on his back. And he had looked at his disciples and said, blessed are you who are poor. Jesus died hungry. There is no record that Jesus had anything to eat the day of his death . He died on the cross Friday at sunset with an empty stomach. And he had looked at his disciples and said, blessed are you who hunger now. Jesus died weeping. After his last supper Jesus headed for the Garden and there in that Olive Grove we call Gethsemane he prayed and he wept. And he had looked at his disciples and said blessed are you who weep. Jesus died hated. Caiaphas, the greatest religious authority in Israel called him a blasphemer. The crowds wanted a murderer freed before they would see Jesus pardoned. And his disciples deserted him. He had looked at his disciples and said blessed are you when men hate you on account of me.
The Beatitudes are familiar to us. We have heard them many times. I recently read an interesting article about them: entitled “The Lesson.”“Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain, and gathering these around him, he taught them saying:
“ ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are they that mourn. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are they who thirst for justice. Blessed are you when you suffer. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven. Remember what I am telling you.’
“Then Simon Peter said, ‘Do you have to write this down?’
“And Andrew said, ‘Are we supposed to know this?’
“And James said, ‘Will we have a test on it?’
“And Phillip said, ‘What if we don’t know it?’
“And John said, ‘The other disciples didn’t have to learn this.’
“And Matthew said, ‘When do we get out of here?’
“And Judas said, ‘What does this have to do with real life?’
“And the other disciples likewise.
“And Jesus wept.”
This is the more popular version of the Beatitudes found in the Gospel of Matthew and serves as the preface to the Sermon on the Mount. There are nine Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel. In Luke, which we just heard, there are only four Beatitudes and they serve as the preface to what is referred to as the Sermon on the Plain called such because scripture says "he came down from the mountain and stood on the a level place." Not only does Luke have less than half the Beatitudes that Matthew has, Luke's Beatitudes are much more demanding. Matthew says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Luke says, "Blessed are the poor." Matthew says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." Luke says, "Blessed are those who are hungry now." Matthew lists the nine Beatitudes, then stops and goes on to something else. Luke lists the four Beatitudes, then he continues with four "Woes," or curses. "Woe to you who are rich." "Woe to you who are full now." "Woe to you who laugh now."
It is here in the sixth chapter of Luke that Jesus begins to teach. He outlines what it means to be a Christian, what it means to live as a Christian in this kind of a world. Up to this point, through the first five chapters, he really hasn't taught anything. In fact, up to now, he has hardly said anything. It has all been action, very little dialogue. He has healed the sick and he has sparred verbally with the Pharisees. He has called the disciples, and he has attracted crowds that are getting larger every time he performs a miracle. They are now following him around from place to place. Crowds will always gravitate toward the sensational.\ In Matthew Jesus goes up the mountain and takes the disciples with him. He instructs them on the mountain. In Luke he brings them down to the plain, to the crowds, to where the people are. The text says "there were people there who had diseases," and "he healed them all." Jesus has been doing that from the very beginning of his ministry. That is why the crowds are there. That is why they follow him around. He comes down to where the people are and he heals the crowd. In the New Testament there is the crowd, and there are the disciples. The crowd Jesus heals. He doesn't ask anything of them. Out of compassion he sees their sicknesses and he heals them. Then they go away. They have no names. They are the suffering in this world. He touches them, and heals them. But disciples he doesn't heal. Nor does he particularly express any compassion toward them. Nor are comfortable words uttered to them. There is nothing in the gospels about the disciples becoming a support group. Jesus heals the crowds, he challenges the disciples into service.
The text says when he finished healing the crowds, he turned to his disciples, and said, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled." "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh." "Blessed are you when people hate you, and exclude you, and defame you, on account of the Son of man." He is addressing his disciples. He is not talking to the crowd now. He has come down to the plain, to the real world where the people are, and demonstrates what God's will is for the whole world. In the Kingdom of God there will be no more disease, no more pain, no more sorrow. Life will be whole. Life will be the way God created it to be. Someday life will be the way it is supposed to be. What you have just seen, he tells the disciples, is the way it will be when the Kingdom comes. But in the meantime, it is not that way. In the meantime I have come to identify with the poor, the hungry, and with those whose lives are filled with pain and with sorrow." I have come to stand with them, and to let them know that they are God's children.
This is where Christianity is to work, he tells them. This is where you are supposed to be, where people are. Not on a mountain top.
It is always tempting to make Christianity that way, to picture Jesus as a "guru," a wise man, and his teachings as inspirational thoughts, and Christianity as just another one of the philosophies about life, giving us inspiring ideals. The situations of injustice in this life will be reversed in the next life, which is exactly what we are seeing in Luke's Beatitudes. That is why he adds the Woes, so there will be a dramatic contrast between those who are blessed now, and those who will be blessed later - In God's time. In the meantime, Christians are to identify with the poor. You can't be a Christian and store up wealth for the future, and ignore those people who have nothing in the present. You can't dine sumptuously everyday, and not be concerned about those who are hungry. You can't laugh and have a good time, and not care that there are people in this world, especially children, who have never smiled. In the meantime, we as Christians are somehow tied to the poor. We can't escape that. There is no doubt what it meant for the twelve disciples. They left everything and followed him.
In the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke, he says that the earliest church, which was, according to Luke, the church in its purest form, had no possessions. They sold all their possessions. Luke wrote that they sold their houses and put all the money in a common treasury so there would be nobody without. But he also says that they met in each other's houses. Now you can't do both of those things. You can't sell your house and meet in it, too. Later Luke will record that there were wealthy people, people of substance and status in this life, who were among the faithful, who followed Jesus around and provided the support for the band of disciples and financing for the movement. So there is evidence that some lived according to the literal teaching of Jesus to have no possessions. Then, later, poverty was adopted as a spiritual discipline. That is the model of the monastic movement. But there is a third way Christians have responded to this Beatitude. They have become advocates for the poor. They use the wealth and power and influence that God has given them in this life to make sure that the poor are not forgotten. They see to it that the poor who are motivated to improve their lives, to be independent, and become a part of the community, and not ostracized from it, can do so. The poor tend to be forgotten, nameless people, even today. We are much more fascinated with the life-styles of the rich and famous. But Jesus doesn't forget them. He called them blessed. Then he turned to the hungry and those who weep. He called them blessed as well. In the coming kingdom those who are hungry will be filled, he said, and those who weep will be filled with laughter. His words gave hope to people who felt there was nothing at all to look forward to.
When you sit down to count your blessings, what do you count? The car you drive, houses you own, the health you enjoy, the employment you embrace. There are plenty of preachers around who will tell you that God’s blessings are health, wealth, and prosperity. If you give enough out of your poverty they will gladly enjoy the bliss. But Jesus said, “Woe!” I’m not sure exactly what woe means, but here I think it means, stop, step back, pause, take another look, and evaluate. Jesus says if your mission in life is to make money, enjoy it while you can, for what you see is all you get. There is nothing else to live for. We are still learning the lesson. Jesus reverses the standard of value around which his kingdom is built. His love is radical, embracing everyone. The kingdom of God is not a place, but a condition. And the world will be a better place not just because we have heard the beatitudes but because we have lived them.
February 3, 2019
In the church, most of us tend to think of Epiphany simply as a season on the church calendar, sometimes as a season we don't understand too well. We may recall that we are celebrating the revealing of Christ to the Gentile world, via the Wise Men, but not much more. But here on this 4th Sunday after epiphany, we see Jesus stripping the superficial away from life and from religion and offering new birth, a whole new set of values, a change which often times unfortunately folks are unwilling to make.
So hear the story again! The village of Nazareth was in a buzz. Everyone was so excited because they heard that Jesus was coming home. He had been serving in Capernaum for a period of time teaching, preaching, healing, and performing great miracles and enjoying immense popularity with the people. Crowds were following him everywhere and now the "home boy" was coming home. There was great excitement. Everyone went to hear the "home boy" who had made good. The synagogue was packed. The biggest crowd in years. Jesus stood to read the Word of God. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recover sight for the blind, release the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Jesus then handed the scroll to the attendant. The Bible says that the eyes of everyone were fastened upon him as he said, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." The people spoke well of him. They all were amazed at his gracious words and they said to each other, "Is this not Joseph's son?" You can just see two "good ole" boys sitting on the back pew; and the one punches the other and says, "I always knew that boy would do good. I tell you what, I could see it in him even as a young child." "Yeah, he used to come by my shop and I would give him a word or two of advice. I always knew he was destined for great things. In fact, I remember when I used to teach him in synagogue school. We're mighty proud of him."
As Jesus continued his lesson, he said, "Doubtless you will quote this Proverb to me, 'Physician, heal yourself.'” And then you will say, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” AND then, he reminded them of their scriptures. He told them about the days of Elijah when there were many, many widows but Elijah went only to the widow Zarephath in Gentile territory. He reminded them that in the days of the prophet Elisha, there were many lepers in Israel but God only healed Naaman the Syrian, a Gentile. After speaking those words, Luke says that the people were furious, filled with rage. The same two "good ole" boys sitting on the back pew are saying, "Who is this? Who does he think he is? Why is he saying all of this about us? What a shame upon this synagogue and the people of this town. Who does he think he is?" "Well, you remember the circumstances under which he was born...." And with that, the whole congregation reached out to try and kill Jesus. One moment he is the grandest thing in the world since sliced bread and the next moment they're ready to kill him. What happened? How could someone be so favored one moment and in such disfavor the next? What did Jesus do to make his hometown want to kill him? Well, what Jesus was telling them was, “I am going beyond Israel. I am going to reach out to the Gentiles," and with that one statement, he destroyed their notion of privilege. In speaking to them, he tore down all of their officially sanctioned walls and barriers of hatred. "We're God's special people so that gives to us special privileges and it also gives to us the ability to exclude anyone who is not one of us." Jesus destroyed that and they responded in anger.
Can we understand a little of how they felt? They were God's chosen people. They had been persecuted all of their lives because they maintained God's Word and kept up the Jewish customs. They built the temples and tried to live as God would have them live because they were God's people. They had taken a stand and were persecuted for it. It is true that when you are a persecuted people you have to develop a sense of pride merely to survive. But the real danger is when that pride becomes exclusive. It's hard for persecuted people to hear that others will be included in the same grace that they will know and feel they have deserved. We have to remember that God loves everybody. If we get to the point of excluding anyone, we will exclude, first of all, ourselves, because the Bible says that Jesus could not do any great work in Nazareth because of their unbelief. They would not accept the fact that he was going beyond them to the Gentiles, and because they could not accept the nature of his ministry, they could not receive his blessings nor his miracles. By excluding the Gentiles, Nazareth excluded itself.
They already knew the Bible taught that the Word of God was for everyone. It was not the exclusive property of the Jews. They already knew that the Bible said that Abraham would not only bless his people but through Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed. They already knew that Exodus 19 said that God had chosen the Jews to be a nation of missionaries. They had already heard the story of Elijah and Elisha. They had already heard the story of Amos when he said that God had not only delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bond- age but delivered the Syrians and Philistines as well. God had been working with a lot of different people, not just the Jews. They knew all of that because their Bible said so. But it was difficult for them to hear those words.
We hear it with our heads and we know it to be true, but to hear it with our hearts, believe it, and do it, that is something quite different. The longest journey you will ever make will be the journey from your head to your heart. We've read the Bible over and over again and we know it in our heads, but to know it in our hearts is quite another thing entirely. We know that God cares and loves everybody and gives to us the ministry to love and care for everybody - the homeless, the poor, those with AIDS, but we say, "Don't make me touch one of them!" Jesus was trying to give to them a new version of reality. Jesus was trying to enter into their imagination and help them see a different world. Things did not have to be the way they were. Jesus was trying to help them see a new vision of how the world could be because that's the way behavior is changed. Behavior is changed through imagination. In order for an addict to be changed, they have to envision themselves as being clean. People who are unforgiven have to envision themselves as being forgiven. Those full of hatred have to envision themselves as being loving people to ever rid themselves of hate. Behavior is changed through imagination. It is changed through the acceptance of another vision of life. It is changed when we accept that God is making us into something that is new and different.
God wants to remake us in the Spirit of God with Christ living within us and holiness at the core of our being and neighborliness the practice of our everyday lives. We are a new people because God has made us new and there is something new in our heart because God's presence lives there. We relate to our brothers and sisters out of true neighborliness because he says we are to love our neighbor.
A good word must be spoken for those people who come to church week after week. The church is the only institution in our world which challenges us, again and again, to be better than we are. We come to a service on Sunday morning, hopefully aware that we aren’t all that we ought to be. God meant us to be more than this, and we must commit ourselves to that higher goal." Whatever the failings of the church and of church people, we are virtually unique in our willingness to put ourselves in a setting where we will be challenged and can start anew.
If we accept that challenge, the potential is almost unlimited. The people of Nazareth, unfortunately, rejected it. When the gracious revealing of Jesus became a painful revealing of themselves, they wanted to be done with the upstart carpenter. We're always need to be vigilant of the danger of following their example.
Gracious and ever loving God, as you shone in the life of Jesus, whose epiphany we celebrate, so shine in us and through us that we may become beacons of truth and compassion in your world. Amen.
January 6, 2019
And so we come to Epiphany – the good and bad news of Epiphany. The good news is that because of the magi, it is made known to us that God incarnate came for all people not just the Jews. The bad news is that we now have a taste of the dark side of humanity in the person of a despotic king. Somehow King Herod having got wind that a baby had been born who would someday challenge his authority, threaten his way of life, shake up the status quo, got a little bent out of shape? Throughout history, kings have had sensitive noses for snooping out anyone who might challenge their authority at some future time. They have even murdered sons and daughters if those offspring gained too much influence over others. Well, Herod responded like people in positions of power all too frequently do. He was so concerned with the preservation of the status quo that he was even willing to slaughter innocent children to accomplish that goal. 2000 years later, not much has changed in that regard has it!. The Herods of our day still seek to maintain power by threatening to kill those who would openly oppose them, even it means killing millions of innocent children and adults. Frightened kings will not hesitate to pull the trigger or push the button. A few million innocent lives are of no consequence when it comes to protecting the glory of their empire. You would think that if those rulers of today who publicly claim to be concerned over the plight of the innocent children and adults of the world, would not continue to spend more on weapons of destruction to protect and preserve power than they are willing to spend on children to protect their lives? Why do you suppose those wise men, those astrologers, probably every bit as old as King Herod, responded as theydid, to the Christ-child? After all, they were rulers too, of a sort. In Middle Eastern cultures, they would have been admired and respected as religious leaders in their communities. So why were they willing to travel so great a distance at so high a cost, not to mention enduring the dangers of travel in those days, just to see a child?
When you’re looking for wisdom and truth, it really doesn’t matter how far you have to go to find it. And it doesn’t matter if the source of wisdom and truth is a wrinkled old man who lives next door or a wrinkled baby boy who lives in a far-off country. We’re awfully fond of saying that children are our future and rightly so but we need to be aware that how we treat our children now will determine the destiny of our world. If we abuse them or neglect them, then the future is bleak Famed Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee once asked, “What is your ambition in life today? Is it to get rich? Is it to make a name for yourself? Is it even to do some wonderful thing for God? Listen to me, beloved. The highest desire that can possess any human heart is a longing to see God.” (4) That is the meaning of Epiphany which is the twelfth day after Christmas, and the day we celebrate the arrival of the wise men to worship the one who was born to be King of the Jews. This wonderful story is one of the best known stories of our faith. As we heard in the OT reading, the prophet Isaiah anticipated the coming of those wise men hundreds of years before. He wrote, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon You. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn . . . Herds of camels will cover your land . . . And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”
Doesn’t the coming of light imply that the world was already in darkness? Isaiah first spoke these words to the people of Jerusalem during a tumultuous time for the nation. They were a captive people. Their homes and fields were ravaged and abandoned, laid desolate by the power of the Babylonian empire. But God who would not abandon His people forever, counseled Isaiah. God would act in their behalf. Darkness usually signifies all the things we most dread. Criminals are more likely to prefer the dark than the light. Fear is more prevalent. Ignorance is associated with darkness. No one wants to be kept “in the dark” unless they are doing evil. Darkness hides our misdeeds; light reveals our misdeeds in all their ugliness. King Herod lived in perpetual darkness. He was ruthless: murdering his wife, his three sons, his mother-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, and many others. His crowning cruelty of course was the murder of the infant boys in Bethlehem of Judea in a vain attempt to slaughter the newborn King of the Jews. The world was in darkness. Ignorance and evil were both ascendant, as they are even today. But darkness will never have the last word. That is the message of Epiphany. Light has come into our world. A student, asked to summarize all the gospel in a few words, responded like this: “In the Bible, it gets dark, then it gets very, very dark, then Jesus shows up.” That says it all. The world was in darkness, deep darkness, but Jesus showed up. Arise, your light has come.” What does that mean? Biblically it means that without Christ, the world is a dark and lonely place. It is a world of conflict and injustice. It is a world of ignorance and fear. But that is not the end of the story. If the darkness of this world is going to be pushed back any further, you and I will need to let our little lights shine. Christ is the light of the world, but we who are followers of Christ are called to reflect in our lives that we have been in his presence. We do that by continuing to shine the light of his love into our dark world.
Henry Van Dyke wrote one of the most famous fictional accounts of the coming of the magi to Bethlehem which he called The Story of the Other Wise Man. In this story Van Dyke speaks of a fourth wise man who searched for years for the Christ child, but was never able to catch up with the other three. This wise man had three jewels, a gift of great wealth which he intended to give to the newborn king. But in his journey to find the newborn king he came across people who had great needs. He could not pass them by without trying to help. He ended up using the three jewels he had intended to offer the Christ child to care for the needs of these persons he found in want. Artaban, this fourth magi searched for Jesus for the rest of his life, only to realize at the end of his life that he had both found him and worshipped him each time he gave himself and his gift to one who was in need. Through his compassion this fourth wise man pushed back some of the world’s darkness. But here’s what’s disturbing. There will come a time, says the Bible, when people will love the darkness more than the light. Is that time closer than we think? The task of that 4thwise man, is that not our task as well. We are to live in the presence of Christ so that with time we will be able to reflect his light through the service we give to others. A traveling man bought his wife a little souvenir a phosphorescent match box which was supposed to glow in the dark. However, when he turned out the light to demonstrate its use, there was not even the faintest glow. Disgustedly, he concluded that he had been cheated. The next day his wife examined the box more closely, and found an inscription in tiny letters, “If you want me to shine in the night, keep me in the sunlight through the day.” She did as directed; and that night after dinner it was a pleasant surprise for her husband when she turned out the light and the match box shone with a brilliant glow. (10) What was true of that match box is true of us. Any light we shine in this dark world is but reflected light. It is the light of Christ’s love. When we live in his presence and seek to show his love to our neighbors, then the darkness is pushed back.
This morning we are baptizing Parker Elizabeth Broom and welcoming her into the Christian community. If there is any hope for her and for the future of all our children, for the life of this planet, we need to keep Christ’s light shining in our lives, in our world —until the day comes when we all live in his love and eternal light.