Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sermon: Crowded With God

Let me start my sermon today by reading a scripture to you. This is from Matthew 17:1-9.

Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.

Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.

But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”

Anna Murdock is a lay servant.

In other words she is a not a pastor, but a lay person like all of you. But she has written on this passage more beautifully than many clergy could. It is called Shhh…Listen and appears in their church newsletter from Statesville NC.[1] She beings by quoting C.S. Lewis who wrote that “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with God. God walks everywhere incognito. The real labor is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more to remain awake.”

Although I recommend reading the entire article, here are a couple of excerpts:

“God is with us, incognito, as Lewis writes. But oh, when the veil is lifted and a portion of the glory of God’s presence is revealed to some … what happens then? There is no mistaking that something extraordinary has happened and there is indeed an awakening.’

“Some call this moment of revelation a “Thin Place.” I have a dear friend who calls such a time a “heaven-touching-earth moment.” For me, I refer to this as a “God-moment.” There are no words to adequately give name to the moment when the Divine Veil has been lifted in a person’s presence. The radiance, the glory, God’s presence and our deep desire to put an experience such as this into immediate words all cause some stammering on our part. There is even confusion as to what has taken place. It is then when a holy finger presses against our lips and we hear, “Shhh … This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And so, the Divine Veil is lifted if only for a moment. The Holy is so radiant that we could easily be blinded yet, in such a heaven-touching-earth moment, there is tremendous love. “Shhh … Listen! Listen to him first before finding your own words.”

“For those who have recognized a time when the Most Holy has chosen such a moment of revelation, there seems to be a quietness about the experience for a period of time. Something so amazing, so intimate, so private is beyond our words. But there must be a reason for such a “mountaintop” experience. There must be a reason to find oneself in the presence of God Almighty, knocked face down by such holiness. Perhaps it is so that our hearts might hear “This is my Son, whom I love, with whom I am well pleased. Shhh…listen to him!” It is the voice of the Most Holy that beckons us to believe in and listen to Jesus in a renewed way.”

Isn’t that wonderful!

Anna Murdock has reminded us first that the world is crowded with God. That God has filled all the cracks and crevices of creation. But too often we are asleep and we don’t notice. Our minds, our hearts are on autopilot and we don’t notice that God is right there, so close, ready to speak to us. Can you remember a time when you were awakened to the Holy, the mystical?

Because when we wake up, when our senses become aware and alert to the things of God, we may experience a true heaven touching earth moment, when we like the disciples hear God saying, “Shhh…Listen. This is my Son!”

And then Anna reminds us that our job is to do exactly what God just said, we are to actually allow ourselves to be without words for a while, to let the experience be beyond words, while we listen, while we experience God.

Honestly, it is a great reflection.

But here is my question for you: what would it take to wake you up, so that you can see just how crowded with God the world is? Would it be doing more? Or would it be doing less, finding stillness, taking time to see and listen?

I suspect it would be the second. What could you do in your life to create more space for such holy and transforming encounters?

As you read the bible passage, one thing that Peter seems to show us is that often our initial reaction is to reach for the past, to cling to old ways. He wants to build a temple, a monument, like they did long ago. He is stuck thinking about the good old days and how people used to do things.

But the focus of the moments with God is seldom on the past, it is almost always on what is next, where God is going, what God is doing in the future. In the bible passage God is showing the disciples what is yet to come, how Jesus will be glorified, and how Christ will fulfill the law and the prophets.

Likewise, when we encounter God, one of the dangers is that we will cling to the past. Try to build temples and monuments to what has happened rather than use God’s message to move into the future. It is true that God’s message may bring healing for the past, but it is so that we can move into tomorrow. That message may draw from the power of the past, but it is so God can do something new. There is a push and a movement from our moments with God that is meant to be transforming of our future.

My experience of God moments is that God is challenging me.

There is the moment when God grabs my attention, the strange tingling of goosebumps as I realize that God is near, that sense of awe and power and a realization that I am not worthy of this presence of God. It is as though God is making me be silent so that I will listen.

And then comes the challenge. Perhaps it is to reach out to a certain individual, perhaps it is to change my behavior, perhaps it is to look at a certain path of ministry for the church, perhaps it is simply to remind me that God is very real.

Always it is like being awakened to something that I had not seen before. A new reality stands before my eyes, clearly, and powerfully. God has something for me to do. This moment is not just so that I feel good, but so that I will live differently. It is meant to change my focus in life.

What I have discovered about these moments is that the more open I am to them, the more that I am looking for them, the more often they happen. When I wake up and realize that the world is crowded with God – I actually experience God more often.

I suspect that that is the same for all of us. When we start looking for God in our daily lives, God soaks into the spaces in life we never expected. We begin to change our focus in life.

So if I could snap my fingers, just like that, and you could see God right now, I would do it.

But imagine for a moment that that is true. Imagine that God is active in your life, that God is present. If God were here right now telling you to be still, to listen, what would God be telling you? And what new thing would God be showing to you about your future? What challenge does God hold for you?

And don’t try to put it into words, because it may not be possible right away. It may only be a moment of amazing intimacy with God, which leaves us stammering, but shows us a picture of where God wants us to be. And remember the world is crowded with God. These moments and these challenges are around us all the time. That is how we grow!

[1] “View From the Pew” www.pewponderings.blogspot.com

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sermon: Rules for Revenge

Matthew 5:38-48

Hollywood loves the revenge theme.

Your daughter is kidnapped, so you go on a crazy killing spree blasting your way through the lowlifes until you finally rescue her. Or some brute beats you and leaves you for dead, and after months in the hospital you track him down and kill him. Or you are a powerful general and you are betrayed by the son of the emperor and you end up losing your freedom and fighting as a gladiator until you can rise through the ranks, earn your freedom and get revenge.

Revenge makes good movies because most of us harbor a few revenge fantasies of our own. We would love to get even with that boss who fired us, or that boyfriend that cheated on us, that person who was texting while they dented our car, and I haven’t even mentioned the rapists, murderers, thieves, and criminals that may have harmed us or a loved one. When we are hurt by a trauma, when we experience something that disrupts our life so completely that we can’t go back to the way things used to be, we begin to fantasize about getting even.

Mardi J. Horowitz says, “Revenge fantasies are persistent because they also provide additional positive emotional effects. The victim can feel good about gaining a sense of power and control by planning vengeance and may experience pleasure at imagining the suffering of the target and pride at being on the side of some spiritual primal justice.”[1]

In other words, the idea of revenge makes us feel like we have taken back control of our lives and gotten (I love the phrase) “spiritual primal justice”. So most of us have had a few revenge fantasies along the way, but even as we fantasize about it, there is a part of us that knows that revenge is a dangerous business. You can lose yourself in it, and if you do get revenge, while it may be satisfying for a moment, it often that only leads to more retaliation from the person you are mad at. It is a dangerous cycle. “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” – Confucius.

Judith Herman, a Harvard professor who has done tons of research on PTSD actually notes that, “People who actually commit acts of revenge, such as combat veterans who commit atrocities, do not succeed in getting rid of their posttraumatic symptoms; rather, they seem to suffer the most severe and intractable disturbances.[2]

Walking down the road to revenge is dangerous business.

So in the Old Testament of the bible there were strict rules about revenge. You could only do exactly what was done to you, no more. If your neighbor poked you in the eye, you are only allowed to poke them in the eye back. You may not poke them in both eyes. Even though you may want to, you may not. The idea was once restitution was made, the conflict was over. Ended. Resolved. No more fighting about it. But that never happened. Let’s be honest, once we have got our revenge, the anger remains, the broken relationship remains. Getting even didn’t really help.

So Jesus comes along, and he says, in Matthew 5:38-48:

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete”

So Jesus challenges the rules for revenge and takes them in a whole new direction, one that is perhaps his most difficult teaching, Jesus says turn the other cheek, give them your coat, walk two miles instead of one. In a sense he is saying be a martyr, let them strike you again, give more than they expect. Don’t get mad, don’t get even.

Remember what Horowitz said about revenge fantasies?

They give us a sense of power, we gain control. But later in that paper he says, “Revenge fantasies can give a sense of restored purpose and control in an otherwise shattered life. It is important to help patients recognize the futility of this apparent utility.”[3] It sounds, good, but it doesn’t really give us control over our life. Amazingly that is what Jesus is teaching us, but in a bit different way. Rather than giving in and losing yourself in the situation, take power over the situation and choose to do what is unexpected. It is really all about power and control. Give yourself another choice in how to act. When we allow another person to make us angry, or allow another person to get a reaction out of us, we give them power over us in life. If you spend all of your time and energy working out how you are going to get even, then you have given them control over you.

So Jesus says, if you do more than they ask, if you go the extra mile, you retain the power and control over yourself. You remain free to live however you want. You are the one choosing how to react.

But Jesus isn’t just giving us a modern psychiatric help session.

Jesus is also trying to help us build God’s kingdom and do a new thing. In order to do that, he has to teach us new ways of relating to each other, and one of the most difficult things to learn in community is how to handle situations where someone hurts us.

And that is where Jesus challenges us to change our entire mode of operation. No longer are you to love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but now you must love your enemy.

He reminds us that God loves without distinction, God sends blessings on the just and unjust. The rain falls on all the fields, not just the ones that belong to nice people and good people. So it is not enough just to love our neighbor, but we must open our arms and love our enemies. And let’s be honest, that’s not popular right now.

The Seasons of the Spirit commentary points out that “In a time when technology is bringing us ever closer to one another, there are counter-movements which seem to want to return us to those “good old days“ of deep animosities between faiths, brokenness among cultures and classes, political gatherings filled with anger, assaults, and incivility, and painting whole groups of people with pejorative brushes because of the actions of a few . . . if loving our neighbor is a primary value of the Christian faith (as well as much of our society), perhaps it is time to see loving our enemy as just as much a primary value.” (Underlining mine, not in original)

What would happen if we made loving our enemy one of our primary values? Well, we might forgive them, but we might be taken advantage of, we might be hurt more, or we might be killed.

But there is another possibility. What we learn from God’s love for us is that it can overcome our sin. God loved us while we were yet sinners, while we were yet antagonists to God’s way of life, and yet God loved us and in that love our sin is not only forgiven, but it is washed clean. So what if our love can overcome the sin of others? What if, loving our enemies actually leads not just to forgiveness but to healing for them and us?

Oh, I know it isn’t easy. That Harvard professor, Judith Herman also says, “Like revenge, the fantasy of forgiveness often becomes a cruel torture, because it remains out of reach for most ordinary human beings. Folk wisdom recognizes that to forgive is divine. And even divine forgiveness, in most religious systems, is not unconditional. True forgiveness cannot be granted until the perpetrator has sought and earned it through confession, repentance, and restitution.”[4]

Jesus knows what he is saying here. He knows that what he is asking is practically out of reach for us, but he also demonstrates that it is possible with God’s help. By loving that enemy, we are opening the door to the divine possibilities, like resurrection. “Love goes beyond, love disarms. Love enables us to live remarkable lives. Be holy, be perfect, be love, for God is love.”[5] I know it isn’t popular, it isn’t easy, it isn’t even likely to be completed in this world. But it is what Jesus teaches because he has the audacity to believe that God can do what we cannot, and love can do what hate and revenge cannot. And he knows that in the next world it is the norm for all relationships, so we might as well start learning it now.

[1] Understanding and Ameliorating Revenge Fantasies in Psychotherapy, http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/ajp.2007.164.1.24
[2] Judith Herman, 1992, quoted in http://adaptivetherapy.com/Trauma-and-the-desire-for-revenge.pdf
[3] Understanding and Ameliorating Revenge Fantasies in Psychotherapy, http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/ajp.2007.164.1.24
[4] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7427910-like-revenge-the-fantasy-of-forgiveness-often-becomes-a-cruel
[5] Seasons of the Spirit 2017

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Newsletter Article: Different, Not Divided

6 Week Study
I have been thinking quite hard about leading a short term study as we approach Easter. In many ways I felt God leading me to bring us into study and conversation about what is vitally important to us in life and faith. After much searching (both on the internet and in my soul), I came upon a study called Different, Not Divided: Practicing a Third Way.

Here is a quote from the first session:
“More than ever, we feel the divides increasing. We see it on Facebook and other social media. One comment or post can set off a slew of negative responses. We hear it in the news in phrases like, "the Evangelical vote" or the "Liberal left." We experience it in our churches when we begin to hear that the church needs to make a statement about their "position on _______" and you realize people are going to have to choose.”

In a series of very informal videos, Kathy Escobar and Karl Wheeler – leaders of the Refuge, a faith community remind us:
"Churches are closing every day. Beautiful, important communities that are desperately
needed in a world thirsty for Love and Light turn off the lights and close their doors.
Often it is at the end of a painful journey that began with a disagreement, maybe over the meaning and intention of scripture, or culturally divisive issues, or it could just be about who gets to pick the color of carpet.'

"When we love our theology more than our brothers and sisters we are usually left with
only two options: 1. Create increasingly larger, theologically monolithic and
homogeneous churches, or 2. Disintegrate, fracture and eventually close the doors and
lose relationship with each other.'

"For almost 10 years in The Refuge community, we have tried to practice a third option—a Third Way--where instead of fighting for our positions or fleeing for the safe haven of a group that looks, thinks, and believes like us--we live in the tension of our difference.'

"We are different, not divided."

Intrigued? I am. Uncomfortable with the thought? I am that too. And yet it seems deeply necessary at this time in our social, political, and religious life. The purpose of the material is to actually invite your friends, brothers, and sisters to join in these conversations with you.

My thought for this study is that we will meet on Wednesday nights from 7pm to 8pm starting March 15th through April 19th in the sanctuary where we have access to video, sound and space for discussion. I know that this will conflict with other events and meetings, there is simply no way around it, and at this time I feel like this is the best use of my time. The session titles are:
      1.   Fight or Flight vs. The Third Way, Part 1
2.      Fight or Flight vs. The Third Way, Part 2
3.      Unity vs. Uniformity
4.      Safety vs. Comfort
5.      Dignified Dialogue
6.      Hope for the Church
Childcare will be provided.

So will you join me in a six week study, as we find God in the tension?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Sermon: Sticks and Stones and Murder

Matthew 5:21-26

Advice in life is often conflicting.

For example, one hiring and job experts says that for an interview for a new job should you dress formally another says wear what you’d normally wear to work. Of course that is small potatoes compared with dieting advice – don’t eat saturated fat from one expert, your body needs fat from another; eggs cause high blood pressure, eggs are a good source of protein and vitamins. Or parenting: one expert (your grandma) says start potty training early, another expert (your mom) says wait until later, and the child says, just try it I dare ya.

One area of conflicting advice is the power of words. On one hand we have the saying that “Sticks in stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” which implies that the words have no real or lasting effect, but on the other we have, “the pen is mightier than the sword” which implies that words can in fact be lethal.

Strangely, both of these sayings have their place. As we look around the world, it doesn’t take long for us to hear someone call someone else an abusive name. Sometimes it is done in fun, between friends, and we might say, “Sara, you are such a fool!” “Whoa, Fred you look bad today. I mean you like something I would draw with my left hand!”

But other times, the things we say come out as a result of our hard-hearts or our anger. When we speak hurtful words from those situations what we say is no longer innocent or fun, but it is intended to cause harm. If we were to say something truly hurtful and awful and then say “stick and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt” as if it is okay to say whatever we want because words aren’t powerful, that is misusing the statement. That statement is meant to help our kids overcome the hurt of being on the receiving side of hurtful words, but it is not meant to excuse us from speaking words of harm.

The advice to speakers about what we say is different than

The advice we give to those who are on the receiving end of the harsh words. We try to help the people who experience the harsh words to look past what was said and to shrug it off – because they need to do that to heal. But Jesus says quite the opposite about speaking such harmful words and how they affect the speaker. He suggests that the words that come out of our mouths impact us.

Listen to Matthew 5:21-26

“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.

Jesus suggests that such actions lead us to be liable at the judgment, and he equates them with murder. This is a pretty strong statement. What he is reminding us is that it is the same kind of hard-heart that abuses others with our words that is willing to take another’s life. He is saying that the same hatred within us causes both. As much as we don’t like to admit it, we know that it is the same kind of hatred that draws a swastika on a wall as kills in concentration camps. It is the same kind of hatred that uses racial slurs that participates in lynching. And although those are extreme cases, Jesus is reminding us that it is the same anger in us that rears its ugly head when we bully, or spew verbal abuse, or call a person a name, as would commit murder of that person. Jesus wants us to get ourselves under control, and bring our hearts back to God, and to lead lives of integrity.

Thankfully there is forgiveness for our past on this matter.

None of us want our hearts to be filled with murderous intent. We don’t want God’s judgment upon us for such ungodly rage. Rather we want to be children of the light, who live in such a way that God is given glory. God can help us do that.

So each of you should have a slip of paper that was given to you earlier. Take a moment to reflect on the following: What word did you utter recently you wish you could take back? What easy lie did you utter this week?  In other words, as you hear Jesus’ teaching, and you reflect upon it, what words came out of your mouth that that you regret.

Use your fingertips (not pens/pencils) to write down your response, I don’t want anyone to actually read your confession, we want to keep that between you and God, so just use your fingertip and write those words, fold your papers, and drop (or throw) them in a garbage can that I will carry around.

Let’s put those words where they belong, in the trash, let go of them, so that they are no longer to be a burden to your soul. [walk around]

Jesus offers forgiveness to us when our words are rash and hateful, he also suggests that we should seek forgiveness from those we hurt with our words. And then he is challenging us to live differently in the future. But we have to be willing to see what is in our hearts and to change! And I think that is what Jesus is trying to tell us – words come from somewhere, they don’t come from nowhere. And if the words we speak are angry or hateful it suggests that there is something deeper there – probably something that needs more than forgiveness – it is probably something that needs healing quite honestly.

Anger doesn’t come from nowhere. Just like angry words don’t.

They have a source. And the likely source is something that is deep within you that is fearful, hurt, worried, threatened, -- in other words, the source of our anger is a lot of stuff that we don’t like to or want to deal with. Which is why we lash out when someone touches it.

When our anger becomes frequent, or especially hateful or violent, what has happened is that wound has become festered and swollen. And like those kinds of wounds, to heal them, we have to allow someone to touch them. We need medical treatment to deal with the infection and then to close the wound. But we know that when we allow the nurses to clean a wound or set a bone, it hurts – a lot.

The same is true with a heart that is overcome with anger. To heal it, we have to allow God to touch it. We have to allow God to deal with the infection, the emotions that have festered and the fears that have swollen out of control. We have to allow God to use sutures to bring closure to the past. And even though it isn’t physical, this sort of spiritual and emotional healing, hurts just like the cleansing of a wound or the setting of a bone.

But once we get past the initial pain and the hurt begins to heal, and the fears begin to fade away, then our anger is less.

When Jesus tells us that our words spoken in anger can condemn

us to judgment or to hell, he is being rather literal. We can begin to live our lives in constant pain of a wound that has never been healed, leaving us screaming in pain every time the wound is touched. That’s a lifestyle that is no fun, filled with suffering, and can get out of our control. And so he points out to us, that our words are deadly, if not to others, but to ourselves.

To change ourselves, we must see the problem, ask forgiveness, and finally seek healing for our deepest wounds. These are things that God can help us with. From the wellsprings of life, and the wondrous grace of the Christ, comes that which can save us from ourselves and deliver us and shape us into a new creation.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Sermon: Dancing Anyway

Matthew 5:13-20

“Hearing the word “cancer” spoken from a doctor

directly to us can be devastating. How much worse then, words about how “we must amputate your leg to keep the bone cancer from spreading.”

In his book A Path with Heart, Jack Kornfield tells the story of a young man who had to have his leg amputated at the hip when he was just 24 years of age. As one might readily expect, he became angry. Intensely angry. He became furious with healthy people, believing that they had unfairly received the chance to live a “normal” life when he had not. What had he done to deserve what he perceived as a horrendous punishment?

He began to work with a therapist who uses art and meditation to help people deal with the spiritual journey of their recovery from cancer. She knew it would be a long and difficult battle.

Perhaps surprisingly, the man worked hard – telling his story, painting his story, re-living his story. As he did so, some of the anger fell away. Instead of focusing on those who he felt had received undeserved health, he began to focus on others who had suffered major physical loss. One day, he visited a young singer who was very depressed after losing both breasts. She found it difficult even to look at him.

The man happened to be wearing short pants and, desperate to bring the woman out of herself, he detached his artificial leg and began dancing around the room to the music on the radio. He jumped and hopped as best he could, snapping his fingers to the beat. The woman stared at him and finally, unable to contain herself, started laughing. “If you can dance,” she said, “I can sing.”

Earlier in his therapy, the man had drawn a sketch of a vase with a crack running through it. Frequently, overwhelmed with anger, he would draw the crack over and over. Many years later he looked at the picture again. When he acknowledged that it was not finished, the therapist suggested he finish it. Slowly he ran his finger along the crack and said, “this is where the light comes through.” Then he took a yellow crayon, and drew light streaming through the crack to the inside of the vase. “Our hearts grow strong at the broken places,” he said.”[1]

We are called to be people through whom the light of God shines

– but we are often broken vessels. It can be hard to let that light shine through – yet we can do it. In fact, Jesus talks about us being light, and the need for that light to shine through us. Listen to Matthew 5:13-16:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.”

So, yeah Jesus said we are lightbulb saltshakers. You are the light of the world – he never said you are the light of the world only when you are in perfect condition and everything is going well. No, you are the light of the world, as you are – in your current state. Sometimes bright and shining and smiling, but other times fractured, dimmed and afraid. Yet in all time we are to shine for others to see, so they can see the good things we do and praise God in heaven.

Jesus said, you are the salt of the earth – he never said you are the salt of the earth only to be used for seasoning the good times of life. No, you are the salt of the earth – for every time of life. For the times of steak and potatoes, and for the days of bread and water, your job is to add the God flavoring to life, so that others can taste and see that God is good.

Of course, being salt and light in the difficult times isn’t easy.

We have to be able to lay aside our anger, our fear, and realize that life isn’t just about ourselves and our situations. We have seen a video of a young rock climber, and we have heard the story of a dancer, and each of these stories inspires us, because we admire those who overcome adversity, we gain hope from their stories for the times when we face trouble, and we draw strength from knowing that it is possible to defeat the difficulties of life.

Likewise, when we face troubles, when we dance with one leg, when we sing despite losing our voice, when we climb mountains, whether we see it or not, there is beauty in our brokenness that can serve to inspire others. That is being light, that is being salt. That is true for whatever our brokenness is: whether we suffer from depression, ADHD, or cancer; whether we have gone through divorce, the death of a spouse, or a tragic accident; whether we have been abused, been addicted to drugs, or parented a special needs child. Those very things that we see as difficulties, those very struggles with life, are chances for us to dance so the world can see.

Jennifer Rothschild, in a radio interview on Revive Our Hearts actually takes it a step deeper than that. Jennifer is blind, but what she realized is that, “Blindness is not what makes me broken. If it is not well with your circumstance, that is not what makes you broken. That is simply what God can use to introduce you to your own brokenness.”[2]

Think about that for a moment. The more I think about it, the more profound that statement is to me. It isn’t the specifics of our lives that make us broken. Our brokenness is our need for complete healing and wholeness, our need for God’s grace, our need for hope. Those needs are not dependent upon our situation, as much as we like to think so. Even if our struggles immediately went away, we would still need God’s healing, we would still need God’s grace, we would still need God’s hope – because that is what it means to be human in relationship to the Divine. That’s why the cross is such a powerful symbol to us, in it we see all the brokenness of humanity, all of it, right up to death and mortality, and burial in a tomb, and then, in what can only be called an eruption of hope, God raises Jesus from the dead. Resurrection lifts him. It doesn’t erase the scars from his hands, it doesn’t remove the wound in his side, but it does miraculously more – it heals us. It heals the brokenhearted, it restores our spirits, it makes well our souls.

It is the work of faith to embrace our whole selves,

wounded and healed, scarred and suffering, so that we can “grow into our fullest, most compassionate [selves], our greatness of heart.”[3] It is the work of faith to find our true brokenness, and be healed. What do you need to do to do that? Where do you need to grow, heal, accept yourself, be willing to share?

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Without you, the world is a bland and dark place – we need you. Yes, each of you to do your part. Dance and sing! Show how God heals brokenness that is deeper than what is apparent on the outside. So who do you need to shine God’s light for, who needs to experience God’s hope through you despite your brokenness? Where are you to be salt and light today?

[1] Donald Schmidt, Seasons of the Spirit, 2017
[2] https://www.reviveourhearts.com/radio/revive-our-hearts/embracing-your-brokenness/
[3] Seasons of the Spirit

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Sermon: Fixing the Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-12

Before I really get started, I need to make sure you understand a vocabulary word.

I’m not being silly this time, quite honestly, this is a word you need to know. The word is beatitudes. The word refers to this collection of Jesus’ statements that begin “Happy are . . .” that we read earlier. These are so famous that we need some way to refer to them quickly, so we use the word beatitudes. If you didn’t know the word, you would probably call this Jesus’ happy statements. Other translations use the words “Blessed are you . . .” So you might call them his blessed statements, which actually is exactly what beatitudes means in Latin – blessed. All that is to explain that the beatitudes are Jesus’ blessed statements, his happy statements. So for the rest of the sermon when I say that word, you will know what I am talking about!

So let’s talk about the beatitudes. Jesus’ happy statements.

On first reading: The Beatitudes are broken. They don’t make sense. Have you ever noticed that? Happy are people who are hopeless? That is ridiculous. If you asked 100 hopeless people if they were happy, very few would say yes.

Then Jesus says: Happy are people who grieve? Those are two opposite things, Jesus. You can’t put them together like that.

So let me fix these teachings so that they make sense. Jesus should say: Happy are people who have hope. Happy are people who laugh. Happy are people who are proud. Happy are people who have food and drink. Happy are the people who know how to work the system. Happy are people who get everything they want. Happy are the victorious and strong. Happy are people when they are left alone to live their lives freely, and people speak kindly of them. Doesn’t that sound better? It certainly matches better with the world as we know it.

And yet saying things that way isn’t very profound.

It is like pointing out the obvious. Happy are people who laugh. No kidding?

The thing is, what Jesus is saying is meant to disorient us, to make us rethink what is important. He is trying to remove the blinders from our eyes that prevent us from seeing deeper truths. For example, look at these pictures.

From the top one it looks like a vicious lobster is about to eat some poor baby. But when we see it from another angle, like in the bottom picture, we see the reality is that it is just an optical illusion. There is no lobster, no baby, just a very distorted drawing. Jesus is trying to shake us out of the spiritual illusions that we have been living under. He is trying to get us to look at life and God from a different perspective, so that we can see a deeper truth. What truth?

It is in what he says after each statement. Happy are people who grieve because they will be made glad. Happy are people who are humble because they will inherit the earth. In each explanation, Jesus is trying to show us that what makes us happy is not the state of things as they are now, but what makes us happy is being part of the transformation of the world as it moves from being broken to being fixed.

You see, it is not that we are happy because we are hopeless. Of course not, the hopeless are happy because they get to witness the coming of God’s kingdom. They are happy because they are moved from hopelessness to seeing real change. The people who grieve aren’t happy because they are grieving, but because they will witness the coming of gladness into their lives. The humble and meek are happy because they are uplifted by God to places of importance. The hungry and thirsty are happy because righteousness becomes a reality. The merciful are happy because compassion becomes commonplace. The pure hearted are happy because they see God transforming lives. The peacemakers are happy because they have had a hand in reminding us that we are all God’s children. Those who are insulted and harassed are happy because they get to experience God’s uncompromising and unconditional love.

The happiness that Jesus speaks about isn’t in the situations as they are, but in the transformation of what is wrong into what is right. For example, who appreciates a free bowl of chicken soup more – they one who just ate a four course meal at a fancy restaurant, or the one who hasn’t eaten in a few days? There is something about hitting bottom that makes us appreciate the good things in life. What Jesus is reminding us is that through God, everything that we have experienced in life that has been painful, unfair, and broken; will be healed, made right, and made whole. In a sense what Jesus is doing, is moving us from our perspective of life within our timeframe, our point in history, and he is moving us to the other side, and telling us to look at it from the perspective of eternity. While things may not be perfect now, our joy is in watching them become perfected. While many things are struggles and painful, from the other side of history we will see God craft them into blessings and beauty.

So yes, Jesus’ beatitudes are broken, they are disorienting. Which is why the beatitudes are so famous, if all they said was unimportant truths like happy are those who laugh, or happy are those who have people say kind things about them, we would ignore them. They would not live as timeless words of inspiration and hope. But because Jesus takes the time to disorient us, and shake up our assumptions allowing us to see beyond our initial impressions, his words live as constant reminders that the blessings of God are in the works. In fact we are the blessings of God as we live, as we seek God’s realm and reign. What we do each day, the struggles, the search for peace, the fight for righteousness, even the showing of mercy, we are crafting the happiness of our future.

Don’t give up! Happy are those who can open their eyes and see God’s eternal perspective, from there we see just what God was doing and how our lives were a part of that creation of goodness.