Friday, February 10, 2017

Who is Blessed?

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches on Sunday, 1/29. The scripture text is Matthew 5:1-12. So sorry I couldn't add an apropos picture to this post. The computer was not cooperating.

Today's gospel is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which is called the Beatitudes. Prior to this trip up the mountain, Jesus was healing and speaking while the disciples basically observed. They had a lot to process, so Jesus put some distance between himself and the crowd. Then his disciples joined him. Jesus' teaching was primarily for his disciples. Jesus is meeting on the mountain like a new Moses training his disciples in a new kind of righteousness.

What exactly are the Beatitudes? To better understand what they are, let's look at what they are not. Some of you may be familiar with this explanation where the beatitudes are understood as the Bee------attitudes. Simply put, we are to try and try and try as hard as we can to live according to the precepts of the Beatitudes. However, Jesus is not cracking the whip. In my pre-Lutheran days, Bee-attitudes was my understanding of Jesus' teaching.

However, the problem with this approach is that it dilutes the power of God and his word. It is making yet another law that has to be followed. It is seen in a contractual manner--if you do this, God will do that. We can never measure up and the wonderful thing is that we don't have to.

As beautiful as they are, the Beatitudes are not simply a table of magnificent ethics or ideals that God set up for governments to follow. It is beyond the power of nations and ourselves. The Beatitudes do not describe nine different types of good people who will get into heaven.

So then, just what are the Beatitudes? A beatitude is first and foremost a blessing promised by God to those who already are what the Beatitudes describe. They are written in unconditional, performative language. The Beatitudes bring into being the reality they declare. They are nine declarations about the blessedness, in spite of appearances of the community of faith, living in anticipation of the fullness of God's reign at the end of the age.

The first thing Jesus teaches his disciples is how to recognize blessedness. Jesus is not teaching them how to become blessed, or even to bless each other, but to recognize who is already blessed by God. It's not necessarily who you'd think.

"Blessed are those who..." The beatitudes promise blessing to those whom God cares for. Jesus gives his blessing and the language transforms--conferring God's blessing in the saying of it. In extending a blessing upon the victims in society, Jesus is not calling people to become victims. Victims hear Christ's beatitude and then are able to claim a life appropriate to that beatitude. A community that hears itself blessed by the Lord does not remain passive, but acts in accord with the coming kingdom.

The poor in spirit are those who have taken their condition to their very heart...not allowing themselves to be seduced by the attraction of wealth. "Theirs is the kingdom" because Jesus presents the nature of the life of the kingdom he proclaims and represents.

Those who mourn are connected to the repentant. It also applies to those who are broken, who suffer or have sustained personal grief and responded humbly. Additionally, true people of God lament the present condition of God's people and God's program in the world.

Meekness can have a positive sense  such as humble or gentle, but can also have the negative sense such as the powerless. The meek have not been given their share of the earth and have been denied access to the world's resources, not having the opportunity to enjoy God's creation. Their inherited blessing is not a reward that is earned, but a gift for which one must wait.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. When my family and I lived in Bethlehem, we had taken a trip north to the Galilee for vacation. When it was time to go home we decided to take the shorter of two routes home. Of course, it was summer and was in the days when most cars did not have air conditioning and people didn't carry around water bottles like they do today. We went via the desert of the Jordan Valley. We had the windows open and had no water with us and we thought we'd die until we got something to drink. Have you ever been so hungry for food or thirsty for drink? Imagine yearning in such a way for God's righteousness.

The blessed merciful are healers, people who seek to right that which has gone wrong. They want everything eliminated that prevents life from being as God intends: poverty, ostracism, hunger, disease, demons and debt. Their blessing is that they will receive mercy and they will see mercy prevail.

The meek, mourning and merciful hear the text as a word of encouragement and reassurance. They are singled out by the blessing of God and are renewed in their hope for the future. They inherit their blessing. It is a gift for which one must wait.

The pure in heart recognize that God alone is their hope. Purity of heart refers to the single-minded devotion to God. Their blessing is that they will see God. As those who are truly pleasing to God, they have shown the world what it means to be godly.

Peacemakers are those who are agents of God who are actively establishing the wholeness and well-being that God wills for a broken world. Peacemaking is not a passive activity, but exerts positive actions for reconciliation. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. Here it is our human activity to participate in what God is doing. Commitment, not persecution is the virtue being promoted.

Blessed are you when people revile you. Why would you be reviled and persecuted and lied about? It is because you are committed to righteousness. Because of this, you will end up with those being unjustly persecuted. However, you have already heard the blessings God has in store for such people

Jesus promises the kingdom to the powerless, the oppressed who embrace the poverty of their condition by trusting in God, not favors from the powerful for their deliverance. God will vindicate the oppressed. Such a promise gives us hope to work for justice and grace to endure the hard path of love.

Every community has its own definition of what it constitutes blessedness. The expression used to describe it may be "the good life" or "success." We all have definitions of what it means to have made it, and normally it's not those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek or pure in heart or thirst for righteousness and all the rest. In our world success is often measured by wealth, power, success or beauty. According to the standards of this world, is usually the material kind.

Jesus is teaching something very different. Jesus teaches us to see how God calls blessed those who are down and out, distressed by their circumstances, passionate about promoting righteousness and working for peace, or persecuting for doing the right thing.

The blessings Jesus promises come only by God's intervention. The future kingdom is in some sense present in Jesus who feeds the hungry, heals the sick and comforts the brokenhearted. We participate in the spiritual down payment of these blessings in Christ right now.

Jesus urges us to look at those around us in a different light. Rather than merely taking pity on their losses, we are invited to enter into them. Rather than judge their failings, we are invited to forgive and remind them that they are blessed by God and born for more than they've settled for. Rather than despise weakness, we are invited to see in it the the truest point of meeting between God's children. God reveals himself to us most clearly and completely at our places of deepest need.

All of these "blesseds' show that the Beatitudes are expressions of what is already true about the Christian community. God's kingdom is not some far away place, but is found whenever we honor each other as God's children, bear each other's burdens, tend to each other's wounds and meet each other's needs. Humanity is fragile and vulnerable. God's character is to gather all these things into a divine embrace.

Blessed are you!  Amen.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

This is the sermon I preached Sunday, 1/22 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The gospel text was Matthew 4:12-23.

Today we are inundated with pleas to “follow” different companies or public figures on social media. The more followers they have, the more easily and cheaply they can disseminate their message or advertise their product. Books and blogs have been written on “how to rapidly build and boost your social media following.”

How does a culture of consumerism that emphasizes “following” affect the way we understand today’s gospel as Christians? How, as a community, do we help each other differentiate and listen to the call from Jesus over the temptation of so many others?

When Jesus began his public ministry, he knew the time was right. The imprisonment of John the Baptist was Jesus' signal. With John the Baptist in prison and out of commission, who would preach the good news of the kingdom and call people to repentance? It's time, Jesus. You're up.

Jesus' message, like John the Baptist's was "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (v. 17). "Repent" is in the present tense, meaning "Keep on repenting!," "Continually be repentant." Repentance here is more than a change of direction and the gaining of a new set of values, but rather, readiness for life under the reign of God.

Repentance is the ongoing lifestyle for people of the kingdom. There is no sorrow or remorse pictured here. In other words, "Get yourself a new orientation for the way you live, then act on it!"

The kingdom coming near describes an event, not a static condition. Kingdom can refer to the area ruled by a king or it can refer to the power or authority to rule as king. Such ruling power emanates from heaven. One commentator translates the phrase "the kingdom of heaven has come near" as "heaven rules."

The first disciples of Jesus were fishermen. As such, they were embedded in the imperial economy of Rome, who ruled over Palestine at that time. Rome asserted control over the land and sea, their production and the transportation and marketing of their yields with contracts and taxes.

Isn't the way Jesus calls his first disciples a little puzzling? Jesus calls out to Peter and Andrew to follow him. They drop what they were doing and go with Jesus.

The next set of brothers, James and John were also called by Jesus and they left everything to follow him. Whether or not the four fisherman had previous knowledge of Jesus is unimportant. What is being stressed is that Jesus addresses them and they immediately leave to follow him.

The fishermen were already at work. They already had something useful and important to do, and were not looking for a new life. Jesus sought them out, unlike typical disciples who would look for and attach themselves to a particular teacher. Jesus' call does not fill an obvious vacuum or meet an obvious need in their lives. God's call is intrusive and disruptive, calling the men away from work and family.

The message of God's reign is not for the faint of heart. All four brothers obeyed Jesus' call. They broke with fishing and family. Wholehearted allegiance was required, meaning a break with old relationships and securities.

Does this mean they continually traveled with Jesus and never saw their families during the three years of Jesus' ministry? It's much more likely that they were on the road with Jesus for a day or two and then returned back to their homes and town. According to the gospels, the group was never more than a half day to a day's walk from their homes during their ministry in Galilee.

The power and scope of God's rule is underscored by the descriptions of Jesus healing those from every corner of the land. As God's agent, Jesus is to manifest the light of God's saving presence and reign. Where the reign of God is present, the crooked is straightened, demons are exorcised and the lame walk.

God's rule means the exercise of the divine power to make things right. With an invitation to be part of such a gift, no wonder the four fisherman welcomed Jesus' call with an instant response. The gospel envisions God's empire or kingdom as already established in the heavens.

Jesus' message and work are summarized in the these words, "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching...and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and... sickness among the people" (v. 23)--and his disciples followed him.

These twin stories of the call of the four disciples make it clear that Jesus summons people from the fabric of family relationships and from the midst of the workaday world -- into a new set of relationships and to a new vocation.

Was Jesus' work limited only to Jesus and his first followers? It continues in the book of Acts and throughout the New Testament. The early church did what Jesus and his first disciples did. The preaching if the kingdom of God was the common denominator.

Jesus has issued the call. How should we respond to the coming of heaven's rule? One would think worship or praise, but it is repentance that is called for. It is easier to celebrate and praise, than to repent. Luther taught,"All of a Christian's life is one of repentance."

The disciples left all to follow Jesus, but it may never be necessary for all of us to leave professions and possessions behind, but we must all leave our world behind and enter the new world into which Jesus invites us.

We come together as the body of Christ to be strengthened for our life outside of this building. As we allow God's love to shine through us to others, we are sharing the kingdom of God. God works through us in many ways, some more public, and some are quieter.

Our words and deeds need to be addressed to more than just church people. Jesus had a home base in Capernaum, but he left it to go out among the people.

How can we minister outside of our building? One way is to feed the hungry through ministries like St. Susan's and our local food pantry. When people eat nutritious food they are healthier. Another way to minister is to visit with the lonely and needy. As we are with them, we are like God's presence for them.

As we, the church, proclaim what God has done in Jesus, we continue Jesus' own preaching of the kingdom of God. In Matthew, the kingdom of God was not an ideal, principle, or abstraction, but was definitely revealed and embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus.

The goal of the kingdom is not to serve us in being more effective or productive in our jobs. Our work is effective when it expresses the will of God. The patterns of our lives are not made secure by the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom of heaven rearranges them into a new design of God's own making.



M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter's Bible: Matthew

M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary.

Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year A.

Brian Stoffregen,