A Mustard Seed Faith

Mark 4:26-34

26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Look at these giant seeds.

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But look at these tiny mustard seeds.  For the life of me, I can’t just pick up one!

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It’s amazing Jesus uses this tiny example to emphasize faith and he uses it again in another story.

Matthew 17:18-20

18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Luke 17:5-6

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

I love stories.  I grew up a United Methodist preacher’s kid and what I liked best of my dad’s sermons were his stories.  So I’m going to tell you one of my stories.  I’m the oldest of three and the only girl.  We were senior, sophomore and freshman in high school and we’re super close.  My mom went back to get her master’s in guidance when my youngest brother went to kindergarten.  My parents emphasized to us that they are both equal heirs in the kingdom and have always lifted up the priesthood of all believers.  My mom, even in retirement, is as much a minister as my dad.  All my life, I’ve wanted to be a teacher.  I was obsessed with Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth from Little Women and Anne with an “E” from Anne of Green Gables.  I would create class rolls with names from books and mark them “absent” or “present.”  I took Teacher Cadet my senior year of high school and went to Winthrop University to be a high school English teacher.  It combined my love of reading, creativity, problem solving how I would get each student excited about Chaucer or King Lear.  I didn’t care that much for grammar, but I loved teaching til they understood and the light bulb went off.

In college, I got involved in campus ministry at WNW – Wesley (UMC/Methodist) Newman (Catholic) Westminster (PCUSA/Presbyterian).  Campus ministry opened my eyes to all of the many ways the Gospel can be lived out.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism had emphasized in his teachings: personal piety and social holiness.  Personal piety – personal quiet times/devotions, prayer, studying the word individually and in groups, worship.  Social holiness – we would do homeless sleep outs in boxes on Winthrop’s lawn, panhandling the next day on one of the busiest streets in Rock Hill, volunteering at CROP Walk raising money for the hungry all over the world in particular the young girls that walk on average 10 kilometers a day for clean water, writing letters to Amnesty International on behalf of prisoners.

Tuesday’s Child Learning Center was a ministry of WNW that was an afterschool care program for homeless and at-risk kids.  My husband Mike and I were co-student coordinators and learned firsthand how we dealt with stress and parenting!  When we went on my first international mission trip to Nicaragua, we were digging latrines because Hurricane Mitch had moved all of the people around Lake Managua to a cow pasture they called Nueva Vida, New Life.  We saw lots of UN tarps and metal they had scavenged.  We were divided up two by two to dig and I was paired with a girl from the University of South Carolina who spoke Spanish.  That came in handy when on the first day, I puked in the family’s yard.  The missionaries gave me a bucket and a peanut butter jar of electrolytes and sent me to the bunk room.  The only book I had in my bag was one that my mom had suggested and given to me, it was Elisabeth Elliot’s These Strange Ashes about her first years as a missionary.  I read that book cover to cover and you know what, the Bible she had created in that specific language of that tribe,  all the hours of work she had poured into it, got washed away in a river, that made me feel better, because I knew the rest of her story.  How she went on to minister and bring her 3 year old daughter Valerie to the very tribe in Ecuador that had killed her husband Jim Elliot.  Fast forward at least 40 years and I’m reading this book feeling pretty down and out, but then I discover that one of my heroines in the faith felt down and out and discouraged too, I had hope that I could do this missionary thing after all.  It was a mustard seed faith. One that blossomed over time like the first passage from Mark!  When Mike Jeter made me get up off the bed and handed me some 7 Up, it settled my stomach (Have you ever drunk straight electrolytes????  Yuck!) and he kept me laughing with his antics and stories.  I always treasured that first trip to Nicaragua and what it taught me and I continued as a student and as a campus minister helping my students have their own “ah ha” experiences.

Fast forward again to the summer between my junior year and senior year, I was going to England on a study abroad trip and Mike and I had just started dating.  It was pre-9-11 so he walked me to the gate.  As I was about to get on the plane, he told me he loved me for the first time.  Our kids, don’t like to hear the lovey dovey kissy kissy stuff, so none of that!

I, being the international traveler that I am (twice to Nicaragua – hardly!), had the brilliant idea that I wanted to travel to Scotland the two weeks before I was due at school.  Lo and behold, I get food poisoning from the airline food.  When I land at Gatwick I bought a Eurorail pass and got some Burger King French fries that I proceeded to puke on the train. (I’ve mentioned puke twice already in this sermon.  Don’t worry that’s not a frequent occurrence.)  I turn around in Heathrow, go back to Gatwick, and make reservations for a hotel.   I proceeded to find the hotel lugging my many bags through to the Paddington train stop.  I have a scrapbook that documents this trip including the picture on the hotel wall that I looked at for days on end.  My only life line was a red phone booth in front of the hotel.  I drug my sick carcass out there to call my parents and Mike.  Many, many, many times.   I realized right away when I try to get some food that sprite is lemonade and our television channels and shows are WAY, WAY better than theirs.  The hotel didn’t have air conditioning so I probably was hallucinating frequently.  I had packed lots of cold weather clothes because I was traveling to Scotland and London was hot as blue blazes, so I ventured out and found a Gap.  I tried on one skirt and passed out in the dressing room, so I thought I would take myself to the nearest hospital but couldn’t seem to hail a taxi.  Much to my relief, a priest walked up to me and showed me how. I was standing on the wrong side of the road.  Duh.

When I got to the emergency room I spent 6 and a half blissful hours in the air conditioning watching Wimbledon and seeing all the ins and outs of a London ER which was much more exciting than tv show!  Wimbledon always brings a heatwave according to the announcers and that’s when John McEnroe breaks in and makes a crack it being July 4th and us gaining our independence, I was thinking let ME have my independence from this place.  I’ve loved John McEnroe ever since!

Why am I telling you these stories?  Because in that red phone booth my mom told me to read the book of Ezekiel.  It’s a 48 chapter book.  I’m thinking in my head, “Mom, you’re daughter has food poisoning from what feels like the other side of the world and you’re telling her to read the book of Ezekiel?”  In that sweltering room, with nothing more to do, I flipped around in Ezekiel, reading passages here and there.  Then I landed on Ezekiel 37, it reads, “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone…. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

It became so clear that I was called to this awesome and scary thing called ministry.  I had been stripped away from all the “stuff” in my life, all of the busy-ness, and from my usual always whirling mind in my sickness, in a continent by myself, alone, afraid and crying out to God to draw near as only God can.  I had only a mustard seed of faith and God was ever present and ever faithful.  At the time, I was going more than full throttle, and in thinking about this over the past week, God had to make me pause so that I couldn’t stuff another thing in there.  You know when you make yourself busy doing the Lord’s work?  I was working multiple jobs, I was part of multiple organizations, my grandfathers had died the semester before, and I would have these brief, but critical Jesus injections, you know the ones that keep you running, but I had not actually stopped.  And paused. And discerned.  And processed.  I had gone to Exploration the Fall before where Tex Sample said, “Accepting a call to the ministry is a lot like throwing up, when you do it, you’ll feel a lot better.”  Well, I did it, and felt a lot better.  I could use all of my love of stories, creativity, and teaching in ministry.  I could use my love of personal piety balanced with social holiness for the glory of God.  I could move the mountains if I had mustard seed faith and God will give me the words to speak to the dry bones in Christ who strengthens me.

Not only did my call to ministry happen in England, I found out that <Spoiler Alert> Mike and I were meant to be together.  Remember when he said he loved me before I got on the plane, I meant it then when I answered him, but I really meant it in the days to come as God worked within my heart.  You see my dad had always been the pastor.  I believed very much in women in ministry, but I knew firsthand, what a call to ministry means for a family.  How could the Mom be there for both her kids and her congregation?  You have to have a willing companion and a true partner.  We joked growing up that when my mom started playing Steven Curtis Chapman’s For the Sake of the Call or Michael W. Smith’s Friends are Friends Forever, we knew we were moving.  God was giving me all sorts of nudges during my time there both within me and for all the world to see.  The pinnacle was seeing a familiar episode of Friends that happened to be on Nick at Nite on Friday.  You know how I said at the time British television was horrible, the only good thing, was the American re-runs. My family always likened me as Monica and Mike as Chandler, because I kept my room very neat and could always tell if my brothers had been in there and Mike was the sweet jokester and lo and behold, I remember sitting in a hotel room with my mom and grandmother watching the episode of Chandler asking Monica to marry him.  I hadn’t had the mustard seed faith to trust that God could work things out both in my family life and in ministry life.  I’m a natural control freak and doubter and I have to say honestly didn’t believe it could work out that I could have a call to ministry and my family.  Mike says that’s crazy, but that’s what fear does to you – it says, you can’t do something and you believe it.  Fear says you’re not enough when God says you are more than enough by God’s grace and mercy!

Fast forward over the past 17 years and we have been on the greatest mountaintops and walked the darkest valleys. Our faith has been tested, tried and pushed to the limit.  Sometimes in reference to God will never give you more than you can handle, I wish God didn’t trust us so much.  We found this in a store at Montreat on spring break.

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It couldn’t have come at a better time. All things are possible.  ALL things are possible.  Do you hear that?  ALL things are possible.  If we say to a mountain move then it will move.  If we say to a mulberry tree, go jump in the lake, it will.  If we take the time to listen to what God is speaking for us today and if we tap into that Holy Spirit power, we can change the world.  Who knows what we could do with just a little bit of faith?  Faith moves mountains.  In your deepest heart, in your relationships, in your work place, in your neighborhoods, in our world if we have a mustard seed faith, what would it mean?  God could blow our minds.  As we share together, you’ve heard some of my story, I want to know your stories of mustard seed faith.  I want to know the battles you’re facing and the dragons your slaying.  I want to know what brings you joy and hope.  I want us to share together and be community with one another so that we can live out the faith for all the world to see and know the greatest story ever told – the Gospel of Jesus Christ – how the great God of the universe came to us Emmanuel and walked and lived among us and told these stories about common everyday things like mustard seeds.

A New Way

For the past 6 weeks, we have sat at the feet of our Rabbi Jesus.  We’ve learned he calls everyone who is willing to follow.  We have found freedom in the words from Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV), 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  We have walked with our Rabbi Jesus and have gotten his resurrection dust all over us.  We heard a tremendous sermon basically flipping the script of life as we know it.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Then when the disciples began peppering him with questions we learned about loving our enemies, keeping our promises, and storing up not treasures on earth that moth and rust destroy, but instead storing up treasures in heaven.  These are all powerful lessons that it would take several lifetimes to learn and perfect, but we know we have hope in Christ alone to take our place, to teach us the way, the truth, and the life, to teach us how to do life together in community.

For the next 4 weeks up until Palm Sunday, we’re going to be studying Reuben Job’s Three Simple Rules:  A Wesleyan Way of Living.  It’s based upon John Wesley’s General Rules which are in our Book of Discipline.  The rules are do no harm, do good, and keep the ordinances of God or as Job says, “stay in love with God.”  “These simple rules then and now applied to everyone,” Job said. “No one was left out. No one was too good, too mean, too rich or too poor, too educated, too illiterate.”

Drawing parallels between Wesley’s time and the world today, Job says the feelings of disenfranchisement, doubt and fear are much the same.

“Our world is deeply divided, highly cynical about its leadership, greatly disappointed in its structures and systems that seem so flawed, broken and corrupt, broadly conflicted and gravely afraid of tomorrow.”

With so many hurting, frightened people Job says a radical change must take place. “There are two enormously encouraging truths for us to remember,” Job said. “One, God is with us. God continues to woo us, seek us out, love us, speak to us, enable us and lead us into the future. Second, it has been done before.”

Wesley’s three simple rules transformed women and men and started a movement that became a denomination and transformed a forming nation in North America.

“Today we also need a message that can be clearly understood by persons of every age, every educational and economic level, every condition and circumstance of life,” he said. “And today these three simple rules provide that message.”

Rewind back two thousand years ago to the two great commandments that our Rabbi gave us.

Mark 12:29-31

29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

From day one, Scripture tells us that God is the God of community. First, God is Trinity, this mysterious fellowship of three-persons-in-one. Second, as we hear in the opening pages of Genesis, God describes how we as human beings inherit that communal nature, saying, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (Gen 1:26). No wonder when Adam finds himself without companionship in the garden, God recognizes “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Last, the entire history of God’s devoted followers, from the very first days until today, is one of covenant-making where the people are united together in intimate relationship with one another and with the Father, Son, and Spirit.

In Moses’ day, that meant a Law that largely focused on how to live in right relationship, and also how to mend those relationships when broken. The Law (and circumcision as a physical sign of initiation) meant that, for the first time, a “people of God” was born – not only of the chosen Hebrews but also of those along the way like Rahab and Ruth and so many others who chose God wholeheartedly. This continued through the centuries, despite periods of rebellion and exile on the part of God’s people, until Jesus’ day. That’s when Emmanuel showed us once again how personal and near God meant to be with us. He spent his entire precious life living among, eating with, and serving whomever he met, whether in crowds or in smaller intimate circles. He called us not just to believe in the idea of him that he would set the captives free and bring liberation to his people, but to follow him in close contact, as a Rabbi, to join the throngs of those following him. The result was a new covenant and a new understanding of “God’s people” as all those who put their faith in the Messiah. In the early church, this meant a powerful focus on living in koinonia or living in sacred community like family (Acts 2:43-47).

These first Christians were bound together not only by their faith but by its consequences. In the Empire of their day, whether one was a Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, Roman citizen or slave, making a Christian profession of faith became a grave risk. The earliest confessions that they made were statements as simple as, “Jesus is Lord.” But to say such a thing was tantamount to treason since the Emperor intended to be the ultimate ruler, savior, and object of worship throughout the world. Those three little words, if found out, could mean a total loss of one’s legal rights, loss of citizenship, forfeiture of property and assets, beating, torture, being sold into slavery, and even death. If one member of a household was identified as a Christian, then every member of the household could be liable to the same punishments. After all, in the Roman world the family unit was a single, legal unit, united together under the head of the household. If one person in the home was a practicing Christian it was assumed that the head of household was as well, and if the head of household was a practicing Christian then that would be true for all. In other words, early Christians had a deep understanding of shared fate, shared victory as well as shared suffering. But this underground movement saw massive growth because a person only joined it if they had a sincere desire, if they were ready to sacrifice all for Christ’s sake, and if they were ready to truly share life together.

Fast-forward more than a thousand years, and this same level of community was scarcely found in the Church. Over time, the Roman Catholic church eventually reached a pinnacle of corruption, so much so that the Reformation was sparked to revive the authentic Christian faith. It took on a unique form in England in particular, thanks to Henry VIII’s scandalous life (if you’ve seen any of pop culture’s recent depictions of the story, like The Tudors, then you know we won’t go into detail here). To summarize, King Henry continually wanted to marry a new woman, but the Roman Catholic leadership continually refused him an annulment or divorce. So what did he do? Henry declared himself King of the church in his own country, seized the Church’s property, and renamed it the “Church of England” or Anglican Church. So what? Well, what do you think are the drawbacks to having a single, nationalized church ruled by the King? Right. All those good “separation of church and state” things go out the window. The church becomes so embedded in school and politics and the economy that Christianity suddenly becomes a pretty mandatory part of society. There are benefits to that, sure. Kind of like growing up in the American South, there’s something to be said for a culture that revolves around church and raises its children in that environment. But there are serious downsides, too. Like having people filling the pews who have little or no conscious faith, who only participate because their parents make them or because everybody else is doing it or because they want to be a part of an exclusive club, and who are familiar enough with the Gospel that it’s lost its fresh appeal and who may have never stopped to wonder whether or not they actually believe in Jesus. They’ve been inoculated against catching a real case of faith, and they don’t even know it. That was the state of the Church of England.

By the 18th-century in England, it had become a place reserved for the affluent and well-to-do in society, who were expected to be present every Sunday and support the Anglican institution, but oftentimes with little or no personal Christian devotion. People were “in church” for a thousand reasons – to network for their businesses, to meet their future spouses or arrange advantageous marriages, to have a hearty covered-dish meal, to reserve their future plot in the cemetery – but few were necessarily “being church” as disciples of Christ. It makes perfect sense, then, that when two young brothers who had been raised in Anglicanism came of age, they decided it was time for some massive changes. John and Charles Wesley recognized that, starting on a personal level, it was time to reclaim “Scriptural holiness” that included the two key ingredients that the English were missing: first, the spiritual devotion of someone who believes fully in Jesus and, second, the kind of Christian service that would actually lift up the lives of those in need. While still ultimately college students, they started a group that became known mockingly as “Methodists” because they seemed too serious, too methodical, about their faith. They were disciplined to daily practices like journaling, fasting, prayer and Holy Communion. They dove into Scripture as a living, authoritative text. They went into the dark bowels of society, like debtors’ prison, not just to speak to the people but to know them and later to help remedy their real-world issues. Then, John Wesley began to preach.

By this time he was an officially-ordained Anglican priest but did what few other dared to do: he took to field-preaching. It meant going in person to the places where the poor, unchurched masses were found – literally in fields, at the shipyards, outside coal mines. Suddenly, the “least of these” heard the Gospel, and heard their own stories in it, and they repented by the hundreds then thousands. They came forward to be saved, and the response was overwhelming. Based on his own experience, John grouped the new converts into small groups, classes and bands, so that salvation wouldn’t be a simple one-time rebirth but rather the beginning to Christian sanctification; and the movement ballooned. Christians were tasting real community for the first time in ages, and it was lighting the spiritual landscape on fire. But that’s not all.

Wesley realized quickly that the people needed to learn how to properly be community together. His journals reveal that, early in the movement, everyone started to notice a problem. His small group leaders would visit the homes of their class members in order to take up the weekly collection, and find their fellow disciples in all manner of spiritual disarray. One man would come to the door stone-cold drunk before 9:00 in the morning. Another woman was found with an “overnight guest” who was a man other than her husband. Another home was torn by domestic violence. In another, the children weren’t being properly fed. In other words, although the masses were converting and joining Methodist groups, the members of the groups weren’t actually sharing life together. They were entertaining one another with superficiality; they were wearing spiritual masks while darker realities lurked behind closed doors. They weren’t confessing to one another, or holding each other accountable. In the end, the Wesleys reshaped the “rules” for their groups. They refocused their efforts on deep relationship and vulnerability. The new question that became the focal point for Methodists, and it was designed to be answered in total honesty every single meeting, was this: How is it with your soul? And if anyone tried to respond with anything like “Pretty good” or “Just fine,” it wasn’t going to fly.  He set up these societies to truly share life together.

Every year at Annual Conference individuals who have felt the call of God to ordained ministry whether that call is to be a deacon or an elder in the United Methodist Church and wishes to be in full membership in the Annual Conference stands up before the Executive Session of the Annual Conference, all the ordained clergy, and has these questions asked of him or her by the Bishop. 1. Have you faith in Christ? 2. Are you going on to perfection? 3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? 4. Are you earnestly striving after it? 5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work? 6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church? 7. Will you keep them? 8. Have you studied the doctrines o the United Methodist Church? 9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? 10. Will you preach and maintain them? 11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? 12. Do you approve our Church government and polity? 13. Will you support and maintain them? 14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place? 15. Will you visit from house to house? 16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example? 17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God? 18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work? 19. Will you observe the following directions: a. Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. B. Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

Do you know the General Rules of our church and will you keep them? Just three simple rules. It’s Wesley’s way of expressing the first and second commandment that are in Mark’s text for us today. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all our soul, with all your might, and your neighbor as yourself. Everything else is contained in these two. Rueben Job says that these rules have the power to change the world. “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God” are ancient simple words seldom put to the test, but words when lived out in this life, could transform the whole earth. We really do live in a world of divisiveness that separates, disparages, disrespects, diminishes, and leaves us wounded and incomplete.

Can you imagine the outcomes of our communities if every United Methodist worldwide would live into these 3 simple rules? If young and old, rich and poor, powerful and weak and those of every theological persuasion in the church would live out these words, we would have a transformed culture, we would together, change the world. Wesley believed this in his day so much that he took this as the blueprint of his societies, fleshed it out, taught it, and expected every Methodist to practice it. I’ve been told that it was the Methodism influence of living out these simple rules that kept England from breaking out in civil war against each other in those turbulent times of the industrial revolution.

“An interesting article was written in a journal called The Public Interest by Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York. He is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

Starr Concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live. It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, Children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant.
There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own.

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation. And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone that he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism.

“Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote and editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.”

Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.”

Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implication…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

Even our witness to the redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus loses its authenticity and its power in the wake of so much division and hatred. Those who follow Jesus are asking, “is there not a better way to live with each other?” “Is there not a better way to practice our faith?” a way so simple that none are turned away because of its complexity, and all can practice it because of its simplicity.   These three simple rules are one of the ways we tap into that.  Are you willing to go on this journey of discovery of actually practicing what our Rabbi taught us in a framework that is easy to understand but we will spend a lifetime perfecting?

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.