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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Jesus' Manifesto of Blessedness

Matthew 5:1-12
Throughout the Scriptures, God’s presence is frequently encountered up on mountains; prophets have exchanges and receive instructions from God on mountains. Ancient people believed that, since the heavens were the locus of God, they could be closer to God on a mountaintop than anywhere else on earth.
And so, it is of no great surprise that when Jesus wants to teach his disciples about the nature of God and the values of the kingdom of God, where does Jesus go? The mountain.
As Jesus leads his disciples up to that high place, we are reminded of the prophetic promise from Isaiah, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths…” (Isaiah 2:2-4).
And it seems that teaching is exactly what Jesus has planned as he leads us up this mountain.
The gospel today begins what we know of as the Sermon on the Mount which, in the gospel of Matthew, goes on for three chapters. I hope you’ll join us in Faith Connections beginning next week, as we look more deeply into this Sermon that Jesus delivers there on the mountain, but here, today, at the very beginning Jesus gives the fundamentals for walking a godly path – he opens with what we know of as the “Beatitudes.”
You may be familiar with The Beatitudes from having heard them over the years. Maybe you even had to memorize some of them when you were in Sunday School.
When we hear these teachings, we might hear the message simply as one of comfort. After all, through this sermon, Jesus delivers affirmation to those who are meek, who mourn, who are desperate for justice and we acknowledge that includes many in our world today. Perhaps we see these affirmations as belonging to us.
We might find consolation in the beatitudes for the blessed assurance they offer those who suffer that they will not be forgotten but will receive ultimate justice. In fact, Jesus goes a step or two beyond comfort. “They won’t just be comforted in the future, but they are blessed, NOW,” he says.
A close reading of the Beatitudes reveals not just a set of promises, but a totally different set of  values than we are used to. These values lead us to see God’s desire for the way we should engage in the welfare of our neighbor, conduct our affairs with the other’s welfare in mind, and see ourselves as inter-related children of God, created, valued and loved equally by our maker. The beatitudes call us to a way of life consistent with God’s values, taught by Jesus; shaped by the cross.
The prophet Micah sums up God’s position in our first reading this morning: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
The problem is that we do a lousy job of walking humbly or doing justice. We forget God’s instructions to love kindness, given so that we might live in healthy relationships with God and with each other.
Instead, we create chaos and heartbreak, we perpetrate injustice and oppression by our action, and by our inaction.
To make clear the differences between what God values, and the worldly values under which we so often operate, we have an exercise this morning, for which I have a little help, using the framework of the Beatitudes.
I invite you to listen carefully as, to each point in the Beatitudes, there is a counterpoint, reflecting the worldly values that so often shape our real desires and behaviors. What you are about to hear are the Beatitudes as Jesus taught them, answered by corresponding “Meatitudes”, based on our common experience.
For instance, Jesus says:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
            The world responds:

Blessed are the rich, for they will control their own fate.

Jesus says:
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

            To which the world answers:
Blessed are those who never mourn, for they will have no need for comfort.

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

Blessed are the arrogant, for they will conquer the earth.

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

Blessed are those who compromise their ideals, for they will never be disappointed.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are those who justifiably retaliate, for they will have no need to receive mercy.

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

Blessed are the psychologically aware, for they will find themselves.

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

Blessed are the warmakers, for they will be called defenders of peace, with justice for all.

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

Blessed are those who annihilate their attackers in the name of righteousness, for they will have prolonged their days on earth.

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.

Blessed are you when people accept you and honor you because of your willingness to conform to the status quo.  Take satisfaction in this, for in the same way the world has applauded its great people in the past.  [i]

          The point of reading these two, competing sets of values side by side is to illustrate that Jesus is teaching not just a theoretical lesson in niceness but a true way of life shaped by the love of God and the cross of Christ.
When we are so tied up in looking after ourselves first and controlling our own fate that we never mourn, or are arrogant, or compromise our ideals and the values Jesus teaches, we in fact fail to do what God has told us.
The truth is, we fail at these things all the time. Such is the weight of sin. It is what we confessed and sought forgiveness for at the beginning of our service this morning. We need God’s mercy and grace, and the constant reminder of Jesus, to cherish what God cherishes.  
          God does not desire lip-service, nor extraordinary acts of sacrifice and offering, as Micah points out.
          Rather, in Christ God has shown us, Beloved People, what is good:
To do justice,
to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with God.     
While the values of the kingdom life into which Jesus calls us reflect the goodness and kindness, generosity and self-giving capacity of God, the values of the world seek to not only preserve but to build up the self at all costs.
Through the beatitudes, Jesus reminds us what we are incapable of remembering for ourselves; the values of the kingdom, those counter-cultural, foolish, na├»ve values –the values that reflect the cross, which look nothing like our world.
Jesus showed us, by his associations, through his healing work, and by his teaching, that the least among us are among the most favored in the kingdom of God. Within God’s reign, those who have no hope are given hope.
Jesus’ values declare that every single life has value and should be honored, especially the lives of those who are the most at risk; these are the blessed. In ancient times, God names these in the Scriptures as the widow, the alien, and the orphan. Today we name them the poverty-stricken in every land, the disabled, the migrant, the refugee, the immigrant.
My friends, in his letter today, Paul reminds us that by the world’s standards we are fools to subscribe to Jesus’ teachings. We are ignorant to believe in a savior who teaches us that the way to eternal life is to follow the way of the cross. We are ridiculous to confess the name of Jesus Christ as Lord, and to declare that the light and life he gives, which are the hallmarks of his kingdom are worth more than any power the world can bestow.
In a world where power, wealth and status are the marks of success and must be preserved at all costs, Jesus calls foolish, ignorant, ridiculous believers blessed. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake, blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.”
In the Beatitudes, Jesus calls blessed those who dare to speak out against the oppression, injustice and persecution that marks our world.
The Beatitudes are much more than the mushy, sentimental treatise that we have often made of them. Rather, they are Jesus’ own call, his manifesto, if you will, to revolution, to change the world, by doing justice, by loving kindness, and by walking humbly with God.
Jesus declares that in the deep-down hunger that we feel for the oppressed, for the disadvantaged, the ridiculed and spat upon, for the marginalized, for the despised, we who mourn will be comforted as they are comforted.
We will be comforted as we reach out and speak for the vulnerable, as we make phone calls and write letters to protest violations of human rights and dignity. The meek will be blessed as those who follow God’s will to do justice, And to love kindness, And to walk humbly with God seek security for the least of our sisters and brothers in the world. We will be comforted when we use our voices to combat oppression, abandonment, cruelty and injustice.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Settlement President Linda Hartke said, "It is deeply ingrained in our faith and our understanding of the Bible that we're called to welcome the stranger and love and serve our neighbors," says. "Not the neighbors that we choose, but the neighbors that God gives to us."
Meekness and mercy are lived out in every day acts of kindness. God empowers not the superheroes and gurus but the merciful. The beatitudes aren’t a job description of who’s allowed into the kingdom, rather they offer a description of those who are already here, working in the trenches, humbly serving the one who, emptied of power and dignity on the cross, is raised to new life for the sake of the whole world.

[i] The “‘Me’ Attitudes” is by Robert R. Castle

The Light is Shining

Matthew 4:12-23
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.
These words echo back and forth between our readings this morning.
The people who walked in darkness—the people who sat in darkness—the darkness….
What do we identify as darkness today?
Right now, our daylight hours are still a bit on the short side. Literal darkness comes early to our days. Dawn creeps in late each morning. So, there is the physical aspect of darkness.
Then, there is the mental or emotional aspect of darkness with which many of us are all too familiar. Depression, for instance, affects at least 1 in 10 Americans, and the rate of people diagnosed with depression is steadily growing. Yet it is estimated that 80% of those suffering with depression do not seek treatment. The mental and emotional aspect of darkness can be particularly crippling.
Finally, there is the spiritual darkness that seems so pervasive in our world. Spiritual darkness may come from never having had the opportunity to know Jesus, or it may come from the isolation of living on the margins, or from the deep pain of disillusion, rejection, or victimization.
Spiritual darkness may result from the distraction of the many voices which arise out of the various parts of our lives, each attempting to drown out the other, working together to draw us away from the light.
This distraction increases as allegiance to our idols overshadows our allegiance to God.  
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.
The darkness that weighs us down includes:
worry for our future;

  • Perhaps our job is in jeopardy, is unfulfilling, or is the source of great conflict; o
  • The disease we are fighting or test results we are waiting to come in;
  • Our child or our parent may be struggling with demons that threaten relationships, health and well-being; or,
  •  our financial security is threatened by causes outside our control. Perhaps our darkness comes from the unraveling of relationships.
  • There are people who are just one catastrophic loss or illness away from losing their home; others worry, will we lose our medical insurance, Medicare or Social Security? Are our pensions safe?
  • And of course, the chaos and deep divisions in our world fills many with fear and the darkness of despair leaving us afraid to do the things that once brought us joy.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.
      Our gospel text today reminds us that into our darkness, God brings life-saving light. Repent, Jesus says, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Jesus doesn’t tell us to repent so that that kingdom can come, but tells us instead that the kingdom is here – therefore, repent, so that you might follow the light of its coming.
Jesus is the light of God that has ushered in God’s kingdom and shines into every dark corner and crevice our lives. Jesus is the light that transforms our world.
God’s light will prevail against every darkness. And God’s light is to be light for all people. Jesus is that light.
Jesus, the light of salvation, goes to Capernaum after he hears that Herod has arrested John. The stage is set: God will not let any earthly leader silence the good news of God’s love and mercy. God will continue to provide hope through God’s authority, as God acts through Christ to bring light and salvation to everyone.
The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them a light has shined.
       The thing is that long ago, in the region where Galilee now lies, the people of Zebulun and Naphtali had once experienced great defeat. Isaiah brought God’s people the good news of light to be delivered into their darkness by God’s own hand. In today’s gospel, Matthew quotes Isaiah, reminding the people, God is in control, so don’t let the darkness of this time bring despair. God won’t let it overwhelm you.
The people of Jesus’ time once again lived in the kind of deep darkness and despair that had once afflicted their ancestors, as they endured imperial rule and oppression, this time, under Rome. This is a place where Judaism intersects paganism and nation intersects nation. Jesus chooses to begin there, and to live among the marginalized peoples, on the frontier known as “Galilee of the Gentiles.”
As Jesus relocates to this northern territory to begin his ministry, he reminds the people that while deep darkness once existed there, God, in his faithfulness, has spoken into the darkness of oppression and tyranny, and has delivered hope and light.
God is, once again, taking this amazing initiative towards those who are powerless and who have never even been considered.
       The first century people who populated this place feared the future. They wondered what would happen to them.
They wondered if they would lose their homes, their land, even their lives, when they could no longer pay the exorbitant taxes imposed by the Roman government.
They wondered if they would be able to feed their families. What would happen to them if they became too old or too sick to work?
What would happen to them and to their families if they said the wrong thing in the presence of the wrong people?
The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them a light has shined.
But God sent the Word, the Light of the World, to this frontier land. And as Jesus began his ministry there, he began to tell the people to repent, for the kingdom of God has come near. It is this kingdom that will bring light to their darkness.
The light of this kingdom will banish darkness, and all those who live in fear, who doubt the future, who hunger and thirst for justice will be satisfied. And then, Jesus gets right to work.
Immediately Jesus called his first disciples. He calls these two sets of brothers, fishermen. Come, he says. Follow me.  So much about what Jesus does in this gospel is about inviting disciples, teaching disciples, calling people into discipleship: Come, follow me.
According to Frederick Dale Bruner, “Follow me” in rabbinic speech meant come, “become my students, be apprenticed to me, join my school, live with me.” Students spent almost every waking moment with their rabbis, they didn’t just come to temple to hear them lecture or speak. Discipleship was study-in-residence, it was home-schooling; you were immersed in your studies not only as theoretical learning but as a way of life. Jesus recruited his students, they didn’t come seeking him as was the norm for rabbinical studies. But Jesus is no ordinary rabbi. He is Lord and light of all life.
The gospel text today illustrates two important things: Jesus began his ministry not among the rich, nor within the population of Jews, “his people,” rather, he began with those quite literally on the margins.
Jesus valued all people and went first to those who were most in need – those who desperately needed that light, those who were powerless. And right away Jesus began calling disciples to serve along with him in those places. Jesus calls us the same way today.
       I wonder what Jesus might say if he came to visit us here today? We do some really good work with our outreach projects and with collections we have, but much of our work and most of our budget goes to maintenance. We maintain our building, we maintain a staff to serve us, we maintain the traditions and practices that have long been the staples for Grace Lutheran Church.
       What might it look like if we did as Jesus did and took the light of Christ and his ministry to the streets, to the places desperately in need of the light of Christ shining into the darkness of the world?
What might it look like if the main function of our worship was really to seek God’s forgiveness for our failures and then to seek the empowerment of the Spirit, so that we might boldly step out into the world with intentionality, sharing the light of God’s love and mercy, advocating for God’s values and justice, inviting others to hear and know the good news of this light-wielding God?
        The good news is that the kingdom of heaven has come among us – and between now and the time when Jesus comes again, we get to disciple with Christ and share the light of the kingdom with the world.
As Jesus chose to begin his work out on the frontier, so must we go out into the world to bring and bear the light of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and working as disciples of Christ.
As Jesus called Andrew and Peter, James and John, and all the disciples that followed, Jesus calls you and me. Jesus calls us together in word and prayer, he calls us as church to shine his light and share his love and mercy and grace out into the margins of the world, where so many fear the darkness.
Jesus calls us to live our lives shaped by his light, because wherever we share his light and love through spreading peace and justice in the world, the kingdom appears and is made known.
Jesus calls us to hope as he shines the light in our lives and on our world. Jesus calls us to shine his light in worship and prayer, with and for each other, and in witness to the holy hope and life-giving light of Christ.
            Listen – Jesus is calling; Jesus calls to us, “Come follow me.”  
Let us follow as true disciples of the Light of the World.