Blessings and Woes

As promised on Monday, today I feel compelled to write something coherent about Luke’s version of the beatitudes from Matthew.  As one compares the two sets of teachings, two things come immediately into focus.  First, as I noted on Monday, Luke is much more focused on the nitty gritty, real life stuff.  Second, while Matthew is focused solely on the the “Blessed are you…”s, Luke deals with both the blessing and its opposite woe.

Blessed are you who are poor | Woe to you who are rich
Blessed are you who are hungry | Woe to you who are full
Blessed are you who weep | Woe to you who are laughing
Blessed are you when people hate you | Woe to you when all speak well of you

This parallel structure indicates that Jesus was a really good rhetorical preacher, but it also helps to highlight what Jesus is doing in this scene.  The disciples, to whom Jesus is explicitly speaking, as well as the crowd, which we have to assume is still lingering in the background, would hear these words for Jesus and immediately have their minds taken to the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy.  On the heels of some pretty pointed teaching about the sabbath in Luke 6:1ff, Jesus seems to be reordering the Law by highlighting its root intention.

In Deuteronomy 28, Moses sets down a list of blessings for those who “fully obey the LORD and follow all the commandments of God.”  Similarly, Moses lays out a list of curses that will fall upon all those who “do not obey the LORD and carefully follow God’s commandments.”  Over time, these blessings and curses had come to be associated with the letter of the law – be eat working on the sabbath or the very particular way in pots must be washed – but here Jesus is harkening the crowd back to their roots.

It isn’t about the letter of the law, but rather the spirit of the law.  The letter of the law has created a world in which there are the poor, the hungry, and those who weep.  The letter of the law, in its current abusive incarnation, has made a class of those who are so rich that they don’t know what to do with themselves, who are so satiated and yet still want more, who look down on those who are less fortunate than themselves and laugh with scorn.  Here, Jesus calls “Horse Hockey” on those who have interpreted the law to their own economic advantage.

a20d6baf1cd9e7786dab18c355d14378

“You may be blessed now,” Jesus intimates, “but if your whole worldview is aimed at filling your barns today, that’s all you’ll ever achieve.  Instead, in the great reversal of the Kingdom, it will be those whose lives were dedicated to others, who found themselves poor and neglected, who were committed to deep relationships who will find themselves blessed.  Oh, and if you think that you can use this teaching to hold other down by some kind of promise of future redemption, you too will find yourself in amongst the woes.”

Advertisements

Proper Math

If I’m honest, and who would care enough to lie about such things, I much prefer Luke’s Blessings and Woes to Matthew’s Beatitudes.  I think it has to do with the visceral nature of Luke’s version of some of Jesus’ most famous teaching.  Rather than the poor in spirit being blessed, we hear from Jesus that it is, in fact, the poor who are blessed, the hungry who will be fed, and those who mourn will find themselves overcome with laughter.  If the Kingdom of God is about some kind of grand reversal, then these moves from one fully relatable state of being to its opposite helps me visualize something that is otherwise way beyond my ability to comprehend.  What’s frustrating to me is that we so rarely get to hear Luke’s version of the Blessings and Woes.

I like to consider myself something of a rubrical snob.  I think clergy should learn to read italics, if only to know what rules they are violating as the illusion of common prayer slowly fades into the mist alongside apostolic succession and Dom Gregory Dix.  I have to admit, however, that my understanding of the liturgical calendar and its partner in crime, the Lectionary, is less than adequate.

bcf

Epiphany 6, Year C, the only time when Luke 6:17-26 is appointed for the Sunday readings, is something of a lectionary anomaly.  Let’s look at the proper math.  Epiphany 6 is also known as Proper 1, but according to the rubrics on 158, Proper 1 is never actually read on a Sunday, but rather, it informs the lessons used for a celebration of the Eucharist that occur during the week following the Day of Pentecost, and even then, only if Pentecost falls on or before May 14th.  If Pentecost occurs between May 15 and May 26, there is no chance that Epiphany 6 or Proper 1 are read at all.  Only if Easter falls on or April 10 will we have the chance to read Epiphany 6, and to get Luke 6, it also has to be Year C which begins on Advent 1 of the year before a year that is divisible by 3.  Got that?

I’ve lost most you by now, I’m sure.  Please check back later this week for some real content for preaching.  Suffice it to say for now, that I’m going to savor Luke’s Blessings and Woes because by my math, I have no idea when we’ll get to hear them again.

Holy and Blessed

You might recall that last week, we heard the LORD instruct Moses to inform the Hebrews that they “should be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”   You might also remember that I read that commandment from God in a pretty hard-line sort of way. We ought take these words from God seriously, and strive for holiness, while understanding that it is simply impossible to do it on our own.  I doubt that the guys-drinking-scotch-in-a-smoke-filled-room who settled on the Revised Common Lectionary had it in mind, but this Track Two Old Testament lesson for Proper 25, Year A prepares us nicely for the Gospel lesson on the transferred Feast of All Saints’.

This Sunday, we return to the Sermon on the Mount and lesson we heard way back in Epiphany.  Jesus, seeing that a crowd is beginning to gather around him and his message, hits the pause button and invites his closest companions to come up the mountainside for a crash course in the basics of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The lesson appointed for All Saints’ (BCP and RCL) is the opening salvo in that message of hope, grace, and love, and it is, quite simply, as mind-blowingly impossible as last week’s mountaintop conversation between God and Moses.

sermon-on-the-mount

This week, instead of focusing on holiness, the message of God is pointed toward blessedness.  Sometimes translated as “happy,” this ideal that Jesus sets forth in the Beatitudes is a helpful one as we consider what it means to be included in the list of the saints of God.  We who are called to be holy, with God’s help, are, also by the grace of God, able to find happiness and contentment, to receive blessedness, when we find ourselves poor in spirit, mourning, meek, and hungering for righteousness.  That is, when we are most aware that the world is not as God intended it to be, we are also the most blessed, able to see the world through the eyes of God.  Equally so, when we are merciful, pure in heart, working for peace, and even suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake, we find ourselves blessed.  In our work to fulfill the baptismal covenant (All Saints’ is a proper Baptismal feast, after all), we find the purpose for which we were created.

As with holiness, blessedness is not something we can accomplish on our own, which might be the first and only real lesson we need to learn about sainthood.  It is all grace, which, come to think of it, would work quite well for those who are remembering the 500th anniversary of the Wittenberg Door as well.

Choosing Mercy – a sermon

Shortly after my arrival in Foley, a parishioner named Wayne asked to meet.  He had been serving on the board of the local educational enrichment foundation and asked if I could attend a meeting with him and the Principal at Foley Elementary School.  In that meeting, in Dr. Lawrence’s cramped office that he shared with his administrate assistant, I learned for the first time what it meant to be a Title I school.  At that time, 75% of Foley Elementary School students received free or reduced lunch, a key poverty indicator.  More than 50% of the children didn’t have a dad living at home.  Just less than half came to kindergarten with no pre-school experience.  Nearly 25% came from homes where no English was spoken.  As a result, most incoming students were already a year behind: they didn’t know the alphabet, couldn’t count to ten, didn’t know blue from red, and often, had never held a crayon or a pair of scissors ever before.  My heart was broken, but I was afraid the task was just too big.  I could feel the doubt creeping in, and Dr. Lawrence could too.

“I have to tell you,” he said with dead cold seriousness, “you are the third church to come to my office and ask what you can do to help.  I never heard from the other two again. I hope you are serious about coming back.”  So much for sneaking out the door quietly.  Whether we wanted to be or not, the Holy Spirit had just committed Saint Paul’s to adopting Foley Elementary School.  For almost a decade now, there have been Saint Paul’s members all over that school.  Most help in kindergarten, helping the least and the lost get on that first rung of the ladder.  My favorite part of my nine years in Foley is easily the hour I spent in Mrs. Cashion, Mrs. Davis, and Mrs. Laurendine’s class rooms.  Watching kids who couldn’t recognize the letter A when I first met them read “Tap, Rap, Bam” to me by the end of the year was a gift.  Seeing our volunteers, many of whom had grandchildren who were grown or lived far away, fall in love with these kids was a gift.  Even as my heart broke for the kids who I knew hadn’t had a clean shirt since Monday or whose shoes were clearly third generation hand-me-down, or who I wondered if they had anything to eat from Friday lunch until Monday breakfast, God’s blessing was always present in that place where there should have been despair.  I can’t help but think about Foley Elementary School every time I read the beatitudes because they remind me that God is always present where we least expect him.

A funny thing happens when you start to spend time with people different from yourself: you begin to care about the things that affect them uniquely.  After several years of being blessed at Foley Elementary School, we found our Latin American friends in the middle of a crisis.  In 2011, the state of Alabama passed HB56, a draconian anti-immigration law that was intended to make brown-skinned people second class citizens.  Its impact was as far reaching as it was uninformed.  Some of the provisions of the bill included making it illegal for a landlord to rent to an undocumented immigrant.  As a priest, I was eligible for prosecution if I gave any kind of aid to an undocumented immigrant.  Under HB56, I could have been arrested for using my discretionary funds to help someone stay in their trailer, keep their lights on, or feed their children.  At Foley Elementary School, the law struck fear into the hearts of many.  Schools were required to check and keep track of the immigration status of all of their children.  “We’ll never ask you to turn in your students,” they said, but Dr. Lawrence and his teachers didn’t put much faith in that promise.  Mothers would tearfully ask teachers to take care of their children if they were arrested during the school day.  Children were afraid to get on the bus, unsure if anyone would be home when they got there.  Over the first weekend after HB56 was signed into law, some 50 Foley Elementary school children disappeared into the dark of night as their families fled in fear.  It was heartbreaking, and yet, God was in that heartbreak, calling us to show mercy.

The IRS is very clear about what I can and cannot say about politics from the pulpit.  Saint Paul’s, like Christ Episcopal Church, was a rich tapestry of political and theological viewpoints from Tea Party Conservatives to Bleeding Heart Liberals and yet that Sunday my Rector and I decided it was time to take a stand.  This wasn’t a political issue, it was a gospel issue.  Hundreds of thousands of Latin-Americans were made to feel less than human because of the color of their skin or the accent on their lips.  In that moment, we had a choice.  We all have a choice.  Do we stand with the oppressed or with the powerful?  Do we use our positions of privilege to lift up those who have been cast down or do we sit comfortably and give thanks it isn’t us?  That Sunday, we chose to speak out on behalf of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We invited our people to stand up for what was right, to show God’s love to everyone, especially those young children at Foley Elementary who were so scared, and we let them know that despite a state law to the contrary, we would continue to show mercy to those who were in need, whether they could prove they were in this country legally or not.  It was what we were called to do as followers of Jesus and ministers of the Gospel.

This morning is another one of those mornings when a choice has to be made.  Will we sit in relative comfort as a thousands of Muslims right here in Bowling Green, both Arab and European, along with 1.6 billon Muslims worldwide are told that they are less than human?  Will we allow 55 million Latin and Mexican Americans live in fear of harassment or arrest just because of their appearance or accent?  Or will we use our positions of privilege to do what is right, to show the love of God and to respect the dignity of every human being?  Will we be a church that is too afraid to stand up for the Gospel of love or will we take a risk by showing mercy to the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the outcast?

During his inaugural sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus explains to his disciples the basics of blessedness.  Among the items on that list are things to which we might be called for a season: mourning, meekness, and persecution, for example.  Others are things that I believe all disciples are called to seek at all times: a hunger for righteousness, peacemaking, and especially, showing mercy.  We live in a time in which being merciful has gone out of fashion.  It has become increasingly easy to casually label and dismiss our neighbors be they Muslim or Jew, Hispanic or Black, straight or gay, rich or poor.  As a nation, we have lost sight of what it means to show mercy, to offer compassion, and to see the good in one another.  And as a result, we’re seeing more and more unmerciful legislation and, in recent days, executive orders, demanding that we show less and less mercy to the vulnerable among us.

In the beatitudes, Jesus is clear that his disciples are to stand up against such things, by showing mercy to the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  In the beatitudes, Jesus declares God’s blessing on those who seek after the heart of God, who came in the form of a baby, born in a stable to an unwed mother, who fled to Egypt as a refugee when the powerful tried to kill him, who declared God’s love to sinners, tax collectors, Samaritans, and Centurions, who died on the cross that all might come within the reach of his saving embrace, and who invites each of us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly in his grace.  We who claim to be disciples of Jesus, we who claim God’s blessings of forgiveness, we who have received mercy, are called to show mercy to all because God cares not just about those who are in power, but especially for those who are most vulnerable.  “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says, “for they shall receive mercy.”  Will we choose comfort over blessedness?  Will we show severity instead of mercy?  The choice this day is us ours.  Amen.

The Basics 102

“Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”  The prophet Micah, as I suggested yesterday, gives us a glimpse into the very heart of God’s desire for discipleship.  Of course, to think that this is the fullness of God’s dream for the Kingdom would be foolishness.  Because the concept of justice is so widely contested, there are any number of ways that one can live out these three basic tenants of discipleship.  We need something else, something deeper, to help open our eyes to the specific ways in which God would have us live into the Kingdom.  We need a 102 course.

Which brings us to Sunday’s Gospel lesson and the opening verses of Jesus’ three chapter long Sermon on the Mount.  We will spend the next four Sundays in the fifth chapter of Matthew, hearing things about salt and light, difficult teaching on anger and divorce, and the admonition to love our enemies.  There are any number of ways that Jesus could have started his public ministry, and yet, he chose the most challenging.  He laid out, from the very beginning, what discipleship would look like, and it all starts with the nine beatitudes that turn the world’s understanding of power upside-down.

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

You could spend your whole life trying to wrap your mind around these blessings, but the real power in them comes when they are lived out.  It is only when you find yourself being comforted in your mourning that you’ll realize the blessing it contains.  It is when you feel that insatiable pull toward righteousness that you’ll understand the blessing that comes from seeking justice for every human being.  It is when you are mocked and reviled for standing up against fear mongers, war makers, and power brokers that you’ll come to know the blessing that is God walking alongside.

None of these things are easy, which is precisely why they are blessings.  When we get out of God’s way and take part in the hard work of the Kingdom, blessings flow like a mighty river, sustaining us for journey ahead.

Happy Saints

14570488_1446100195416431_6691186895162463313_n510

Faustina Kowalska was a nun in Poland during the first third of the 20th century.  She is remembered for her visions of Jesus as the King of Divine Mercy, and I knew nothing about her until I did a google search this morning for “happy saints.”  As you can see from the photograph, St. Faustina carried a countenance of joy.  This might be surprising to many who grew up with stern nuns in parochial school; even more so when one comes to learn that she suffered from Tuberculosis for the final eight years of her short life (she died at 33).

St. Faustina is remembered as the Patron Saint of Mercy, which is the basis of the little cartoon from happysaints.com.  As you can see, the button made in remembrance of her includes one of the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel, which is the version appointed in the old Book of Common Prayer lectionary for All Saints’ Day.

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

“Blessed” sounds nice and religious, but it really isn’t what Matthew tells us that Jesus said during his Sermon on the Mount.  The Greek word “makarios” is better translated as “happy.”  Being a saint of God means something more than dour blessedness, it means a life of joy, living fully into the calling of God that is unique to each and every one of us. This is what makes the Beatitudes so powerful. Jesus takes circumstances which we would not normally associate with joy, and turns them upside down.  When God is there, being poor in spirit is a reason to rejoice.  With God’s comfort, even mourning is an opportunity for joy.  When we reach out in mercy, we find the joy of reciprocity.

Being a saint means following God’s will for your life, which should, by its very nature, be an opportunity for joy.  Alternatively, if you aren’t finding joy in the work you are doing to build of the Church and God’s Kingdom, then you haven’t found God’s will for you yet.  Spend some time searching out your spiritual gifts.  Listen for God’s small, still voice to guide you.  Be attuned to your emotions.  It really is God’s will that you should find happiness, even in hardship: happiness in service to God and neighbor.  That, it seems to me, is what sainthood is all about.

 

Let Your Light Shine – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon on Matthew 5:1-20 is now available on the Saint Paul’s Website.  If you prefer, you can read it below.

One of the things that I love about the Anglican tradition is its repetitiveness.  Many see this as a problem area in Anglican liturgy, and I get that.  They think that because we say the same things day after day, week after week, year after year, they become rote and we don’t even think about it anymore.  We know that there is some truth in this fear, which is why as Keith and I plan our liturgical life, we make sure to make seasonally appropriate changes: in the opening rite; the Prayers of the People; the Confession; the Offertory Sentences; the Eucharistic Prayer; and often, the Blessing.  For me, however, there is something deeply powerful in the practice of saying and hearing these words over and over again.  They ingrain themselves within me and become a part of who I am.  Often, they come out in my sermons – phrases like “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” or “live and move and have our being” or “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”  Throughout seminary, it was expected that we would attend chapel every day, and while I didn’t quite achieve that goal, I did attend Morning Prayer with enough regularity that the Psalms and Canticles almost became second nature to me.  Some of those memories have since faded, but there are two liturgical phrases that I still hold very dear.  They have been with me since my childhood – phrases recited by two dear clergymen, both now passed on to larger life.  The first comes from Deacon John Baldwin who whenever he preached began every sermon by reciting a paraphrase of Psalm 19, verse 14, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.”  These words still echo through my mind every time I prepare to step into the pulpit.

The second comes from my childhood priest, The Reverend David Powers Thomas, who invited the people of God to the make an offering not just of their money in the plate, but of their whole lives by paraphrasing the King James Version of Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  As I read through the prescribed lessons for this week, these words from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount were the first thing that jumped out at me.  “You’ve got to preach that line,” I thought to myself, “you’ve just got to.”  As the week went on, however, it became clear that although this line has been formative for me, it ought not be read in isolation.

In isolation, it reads as if it is one more “thing” that we have to do in order to secure God’s favor in some way.  In isolation, it sounds an awful lot like Jesus is adding yet another law to the 613 commandments already put in place by the Pharisees.  In isolation, these words feel heavy, but like I said, they ought not to be read in isolation.  Instead, this morning we hear these words from Jesus as part of the opening to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a three chapter long sermon that Jesus gives at the beginning of his ministry in Matthew’s Gospel.  We’ll spend four weeks here, but we should have had five.  The Feast of the Presentation meant we missed hearing the Beatitudes last week, so I threw them in with this week’s lesson for good measure.  What we find in these first twenty verses of the Sermon is Jesus laying out the main theme of the next three years: God’s deep and abiding love for humanity means he’ll meet you where you are, but he won’t leave you the way he found you.

It all starts with the Beatitudes, nine statements of blessing that assure the hearer that God will make himself known in the most unlikely of places.  Are you poor in spirit: at the end of your rope?  God is there to bless you.  Are you mourning: have you lost the thing most dear to you?  God is there to bless you.  Does your heart ache when you see a world full of injustice and unrighteousness?  God is there to bless you.  Do you find yourself being persecuted because you believe that God cares even for the least and the lost?  God is there to bless you.[1]  If the Beatitudes tell us anything at all about the nature of God, it is that his love knows no bounds: God will make himself known to the corrupt politician and the unethical businessman just as sure as he’ll make himself known to the junkie in the gutter or the single mother on her last two pennies or the high school football captain who only looks to have it all together or the young executive who is losing the work/life balance game.  In the incarnation of Jesus, God shows us that he is willing to go anywhere to give you his blessing.

Jesus goes on to tell his followers that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  You’ll notice that he didn’t tell them “If you want to be salt and light, you have to do this…” or “before I’d even think of calling you salt and light, I need to change these things…” Instead, Jesus uses the present tense to tell them and us that we are salt and we are light.  He then hammers the point home with two absurd hypotheticals.  You are the salt of the earth, but if salt loses its saltiness, it is good for nothing.  Can salt ever lose its saltiness?  It is a mineral, millions of years old, mined from the ground.  No, salt can’t lose its saltiness and neither can you.  You are the light of the world.  When you light a lamp, do you cover it up?  No, that would at best snuff out the flame and at worst start a fire.  You are the light of the world and even if you work to hide your light, it won’t go out.[2]  Jesus invites his disciples across the ages to live into their identities as salt and light.  He loves us and enters into relationship with us no matter what, but our response to that love should be to get about the work we’ve been called to do.

As salt, our job is two-fold.  The most common and important use for salt in the ancient world was as a preservative.  In the days before refrigeration, it was the job of salt to keep the very limited meat supply from going bad.  As the salt of the earth, followers of Jesus are tasked with the preservation of creation: working to ensure that God’s good work is kept sacred and wholesome for generations to come.  The other use for salt is, of course, as a seasoning.  Salt makes bland food taste descent and good food taste great. My cooking idol, Alton Brown, says that salt turns up the volume on our taste buds by way of some sort of electrochemical reaction.  I don’t know the science behind it, all I know is that last week, when Cassie and I were eating only seven foods as part of our study of “7: An Experimental Mutiny on Excess”, salt kept me from going insane.  As the world’s flavor enhancer, Christians are meant to be filled with and share the joy that comes from life in Christ.   Following Jesus isn’t meant to be boring, but rather it is a chance, as Bishop Curry said in The Big Class, “to be truly you.”  That means being the student, softball player, mom, doctor, teacher, sales rep, grandfather, or hospital golf cart driver God created you to be.  Do it to your fullest potential.  Do it because it brings you joy.  Do it to the honor and glory of God.  Do it with a smile.  Enhance the experience of life by being the salt of the earth.

As light, our job is simply to help others see how the love of God enters their lives.  We do that, not by shaming them or guilting them, but by being present with them, even and especially in their darkest hours.  And while just showing up is 90% of the task, we only fully shine the light of Christ in the world through our good works of care and compassion.  Which brings me back to that phrase etched on my heart from childhood: a phrase not to be taken insolation, but to be heard alongside God’s promise of blessing and our commissioning as the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  Let it shine. Let it shine.  Let it shine.  Amen!


[1] Some of the expansive imagery in this section is borrowed from Eugene Peterson’s The Message.