Posted in Beatitudes, blessed, call to action, Epiphany, god is with us, Jimmy Carter, Mother Teresa, Persecution, Rabbi, The Message, Uncategorized, winning

The Beatitudes

We continue this week in our series on the Sermon on the Mount, entitled, “At the Feet of the Rabbi.” If you weren’t here last week or don’t remember, we introduced the idea that it was no accident Jesus chose to operate out of the role of the Jewish Rabbi. Remember, Rabbi means “my great one” because these guys were the best of the best, and the most honored in society. We also talked about the “yoke” of a Rabbi being the body of knowledge and work that the Rabbi had soaked up over the course of his life, and that he then passed on through teaching and experience. Each Rabbi wanted his yoke to live on in his disciples, so disciples were expected to follow the Rabbi, word for word, move by move, step by step, all over the countryside to soak it all in. That’s why the ancient blessing was: “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.” It meant following so closely in his wake, or sitting so near his mud-caked sandals, that you lived and breathed your Rabbi and his yoke. THAT was discipleship, and isn’t it a good deal deeper than spending an hour on a Sunday every now and then? Absolutely.

This Rabbi is important to our series because the Sermon on the Mount is a tricky name. The truth is, WE have given it that name. Bible translators have said, “Hey, this guy is doing a bunch of talking  starting in Matthew 5, and the people are crowded around like a congregation, and he says great, quotable sayings…sounds like a sermon to me!” The problem we have today is that the word sermon doesn’t always carry a lot of weight anymore. A sermon for us can just be a 20-minute pop-off with some good jokes, and a 1-2-3 moral punchline. The first thing many of us think about a sermon is, was it a good one or a bad one. That was not the atmosphere in Matthew 5. If these people were intent on being disciples, of sitting at the feet of a Rabbi, of taking up a new yoke that would utterly direct their entire lives, this time on the mountainside was far more authoritative and substantial and moving than we can even imagine. That’s the attitude I want us to bring to this text too. I want us to sit at the feet of our Rabbi, hear his yoke, and very truly decide if we’re going to take it up or not.  Amen?

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

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

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

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

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Is EVERYTHING that seems successful or “winning” really a blessing? Every “good” thing? Look at the hashtag on Twitter at any given moment and see the crazy examples, some appropriate, some a totally false attribution. We’re speaking for God when we claim something is a blessing. Conversely, is every seemingly bad thing a lack of blessing? Aren’t we blessed even when we lose our job or fail in the eyes of the world?

In Jewish culture, failure or poverty or deficiency of any kind was a sign of a lack of blessing, a sign of sinfulness or God’s particular judgment.  Health problems could be traced back to our ancestor’s sinfulness.  For example, if someone were blind or had leprosy, they or their ancestors did something to deserve it.  Jesus is overturning this kind of thinking. He’s not just telling us about these poor downtrodden people groups, so that we’ll be “nice” to them, he is actively blessing them. He’s speaking the blessing into being. Or putting into words the heavenly reality that already is.  And it’s just the “other” people, he’s speaking truth into our lives as well.

He’s taking these seemingly “bad” things and flipping them on their heads and he’s giving us encouragement all the while.  Hear verses 3-12 from The Message version of the Bible.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

I can definitely relate to some of these.  Being at the end of my rope for one.  But don’t you see, Jesus is flipping the script, knocking the traditional understanding of blessing on its head and lifting up the tired, the poor, the downtrodden.  Not only that, he’s telling us to hunger and thirst after righteousness, be peacemakers, and willingly undergo persecution.  These are all earthly states with a heavenly reward bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

The Beatitudes are not just blessings but a call to action.

In the season of Epiphany, the Beatitudes are a call to action to point out just who Jesus really is.  Who God really is.  The Great God of the Universe.  The Beatitudes are a call to action to be Church, a call to action to make Jesus present and visible and manifest in our lives.  The Church gets the privilege of being on the front lines of these blessings bringing God’s kingdom to Earth.  Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” writes, “There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society… If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning…”

The Beatitudes are a call to action for the sake of creating the world God imagines.  These days, we need this reminder — when our imagination may be squelched. When our hope for the future might have been dimmed. When we think what we do and what we say and what we believe does not matter.  Jesus calls us to himself and asks us to walk in his ways, to sit at his feet, and put his teachings into action.  Jesus gives us the strength to stand with the voiceless; those he seeks to bless.  But too readily, we give up at the slightest opposition. We give up when we don’t understand or don’t want to do the deep work to know what our neighbor truly faces.

Jimmy Carter writes, “Christians who truly follow the nature, actions and words of Jesus Christ should encompass people who are different from us. It is not easy to do this. It is a natural human inclination to encapsulate ourselves in a superior fashion with people who are just like us — and to assume that we are fulfilling the mandate of our lives if we just confine our love to our own family or to people who are similar and compatible. Breaking through this barrier and reaching out to others is what personifies a Christian and emulates the perfect example that Christ set for us.”

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I look the other way?

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I assume someone else will?

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I explain away my perceived indifference because I don’t want people to think I take sides, because I choose to play it safe?

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or keep silent so as not to offend, not to disappoint, in fear of not meeting expectations?

Christ teaches that the greatest joy and happiness is not in the conveniences and pleasures of this life, but it is laid up in heaven for those who willingly to take up their cross and follow him.

I read a story about Mother Teresa when she first began her work among the dying on the streets of Calcutta, India.  She was obstructed at every turn by government officials and orthodox Hindus, who were suspicious of her motives and used their authority to harass her and to frustrate her efforts. She and her fellow sisters were insulted and threatened with physical violence. One day a shower of stones and bricks rained down on the women as they tried to bring the dying to their humble shelter. Eventually Mother Teresa dropped to her knees before the mob. ‘Kill me!’ she cried in Bengali, her arms outstretched in a gesture of crucifixion, ‘And I’ll be in heaven all the sooner.’ The rabble withdrew but soon the harassment increased with even more irrational acts of violence and louder demands were made of officials to expel the foreign nun in her white sari, wearing a cross around the neck.

One morning, Mother Teresa noticed a gathering of people outside the nearby Kali Temple, one of the holy places for Hindus in Calcutta. As she drew closer, she saw a man stretched out on the street with turned-up eyes and a face drained of blood. A triple braid denoted that he was of the Brahmin caste, not of the temple priests. No one dared to touch him, for people recognized he was dying from cholera. Mother Teresa went to him, bent down, took the body of the Brahmin priest in her arms and carried him to her shelter. Day and night she nursed him, and eventually he recovered. Over and over again he would say to the people, ‘For 30 years I have worshipped a Kali of stone. But I have met in this gentle woman a real Kali, a Kali of flesh and blood.’ Never again were stones thrown at Mother Teresa and the other sisters.”

The rocks still hurt.  The grief of losing a loved one is still sometimes raw years later.  Even though we know that God is with us and it’s not a punishment, it’s still hard to receive that diagnosis.  Perhaps we can’t even understand these words until we become poor or meek or contrite or mourning or persecuted. Perhaps we don’t know what they mean until our stomachs ache with a roaring hunger and our tongues stick to the roof of our mouths with thirst. Maybe, maybe we cannot understand the words when we feel the most blessed. Perhaps they only make sense to us when we hit rock-bottom. When we too are persecuted.  When we’re so ashamed of what we did the night before that our lips tremble. When we are about to lose the home  where we were raising our children. When we finally realize that we have no control over our addiction. When we are in such mourning, that we stare at the ground as we walk and we cannot look up.

We can trust in the words of the Beatitudes and in the arms of the One who has the final word.  On earth we may temporarily suffer, but we have the hope of glory.  Just before his death, John Wesley, an ardent abolitionist, wrote a letter to William Wilberforce describing American slavery as the most vile in the world.  Grasping the hands of those who loved him, he repeatedly told them farewell.  At the end, when nearly all his strength was gone, his last words were: “The best of all is, God is with us.”  The best of all God is with us.  Romans 8:31 says,31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”  Even if we face trials in this life, even if we feel like all hope is gone, when we call on the name of the Lord we will be #Blessed beyond measure.

Posted in Advent, Argument, Family, Impossible, Love, Promise, Rivalry

The Last Word

Winthrop Wesley celebrated Advent early this year fitting in with the college calendar and so my sense of which Sunday we’re on in Advent is all out of whack.  I had never done this before but a campus ministry friend told me about it and I thought we could give it a shot.  It amaze me how much it fit to talk about Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love around exam season with lots of papers, projects, and tests looming, some people ready to be home while others dread it, and all of the highs and lows of community – those ready to hurl their roommate and that want to squeeze out every drop of time with their friends before leaving for the break.

On our last night together, we looked at the candle of LOVE and talked about the last word.  We may pile up all sorts of opinions and points in our argument or debate, but in the end, with Jesus, love is the last word of all – God’s love for us, for all the world, and all of creation.  During this season talking about the last word has a lot of connotations for me.  For some, we wonder if we’ll ever get the last word on anything.  Things seem a bit out of control with questions about work or family or bills or the future or health.  It often doesn’t feel like we get a say in anything and we’re merely reacting to what happens, instead of setting the course. 

For others, we think of some of our friends or family or co-workers or maybe even ourselves as ones who thrive with having that last word and can’t imagine life without getting it.  I think of the television show Modern Family and the hilarity that ensued during the holiday episode this year between the “Realists” and the “Dreamers.”  But as the episode pointed out, you need a little bit of both.  We need each other – both realists and dreamers.  We have ones who are ready to concede the argument and ones that will fight to the bitter end trying to get the last word – but we all need to be somewhere in the middle.  We shouldn’t bowl over just because we’re “Christians” and let people walk and talk all over us, but we also shouldn’t be the ones that are raising to the loudest voice so that our point can be heard over all the masses not caring about the casualties that may surround us.

As some of you know, my brother Josh, is the rebel in our family.  I don’t think he has a corner deal on this and we’re all the rebel at times over such things, but in the delicious rivalry between South Carolina and Clemson, he’s the lone Clemson tiger.  Y’all know things have gotten a little tricky these past weeks with that rivalry and I’m not going to even begin to talk about the game, the history, the record, who said what, or who’s got the better mascot, because it sure as heck is not worth all of the angst and passion and pride that we all put into it.  Josh is not the most die-hard and orange Clemson  fan and I’m not the most die-hard and garnet Gamecock fan, so we can probably have this conversation easier than some of the hot heads, but let’s just say there’s been some thought-provoking discussion over football and faith and where in the world pastors and people of faith should fall on these topics and how they should present themselves not just in “real life” but on facebook and twitter as well.  You can go round and round and as people start trying to throw grenades at each other trying to get the last word, it feels like nobody wins.  That’s what I like and am challenged by in debating with Josh.  Neither one of us wants to give in and both of us have the natural tendency to want to get that last word in, but we also take our faith seriously and we don’t want to unduly hurt the other person or slam the other “side.”  Does that mean that there’s no time that we don’t get angry or want to rail at the other person?  No.  But it does mean that we hold each other accountable not just to our conversation and “the facts” as we think we see them, but also to the core values that we share.  It drives me crazy but it’s also something that I rely on and am challenged by as we can call each other out!

In this Advent season, it’s important to realize that the One who holds the real last word  – not just to some football rivalry or presidential debate or late night talk show snaffoo, but to all things – is the One who’s coming that we celebrate and await for the second time during this Advent season.  In the fourth Sunday of Advent I really love all the texts.  I know I’m biased – I love Advent in general, but I really like that all the texts are talking about God being with us and the impossible happening and Holy mysteries and saying yes even when things look far-fetched and unlikely.  Love it! (Oh I should probably tell you what they are – 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:46b-55, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38)

You may be wondering where in the heck did I get the last word from that?  I didn’t mention any revelation passages.  A couple of things.  The first in verse 33 talking about Jesus, “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  The second in verse 37, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  There is no end to his kingdom.  He will have the last word, not in a Jesus juke kind of way, but in a beautiful, Christ-like, kingdom of God, eternal life kind of way….it really does mean eternal after all.  I love verse 37 too because it’s not saying nothing is impossible for God or in God even though those can be true as well, but nothing is impossible with God.  If we go to God with these things that trouble us, these things that we wrestle with, these things that drive us crazy or make us beyond impassioned, than with God we can find a way to be those Christ-like people in the world.  With God we can be the Jesus that the world sees and knows.  With God we don’t have to worry about the last word or who holds the speaking stick, because it’s not us and it’s not them, it’s the one who created us and who is creating all things new.

I fight for the last word more often than you probably know and some of you know me well.  It gets on my nerves when people talk down to people or about a book or a movie or a cause act like know it all’s.  And there’s a part of me that than wants to say – well more figuratively – I want to blow them out of the water.  Now again, I don’t believe that “Christians” just sit back on their hands and close their mouths and just let the world keep spinning, quite the contrary.  However, I do know that often what I’m reacting to is my own pride or my own issues.  Hello intramural basketball!  That’s the other thing that’s critical in this with God idea.  If we’re speaking with God, if we’re living our lives with God, if we’re juggling all of our demands with God, than for some reason I think that we’ll live our lives differently than if we just go it alone with our own sense of righteousness and justice.  Because I don’t know about you, but for me, there are times I can look back in conversations or experiences and I know it wasn’t God – it was me, going it alone, and spinning out.  But if we are with God, then nothing is impossible.  Not worries about family or friends or work or what we’re going to do with our lives or how we should spend our money or who we need to seek forgiveness or how we’re going to let our lights shine. 

So as I think about the holidays and all of the parties and the family and times of conversation and fun that are coming and I know, knowing our family and friends that things will be said with humor and love but always a little controversy and fun with so many folks and different ideas, may we realize and know that there are promises and mysteries during this Advent and that God’s kingdom will reign forever and we can be apart of that knowing that nothing is impossible with God and that we don’t have to carry all of the world’s burdens on our shoulders, but as we do the work of God, we can feel sure and certain that the last word comes from God – a God of grace and joy and hope and peace and great, great love!