Saturday, June 27, 2015

"Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit" - June 28, 2015

Luke 18:9-14

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 5:4]

            I know that it is corny and mushy and melodramatic beyond excuse, but when I think of the poor in spirit, I think of a song from Mary Poppins that I have a hard time listening to Julie Andrews sing without getting all choked up.

“Early each day to the steps of Saint Paul's
The little old bird woman comes.
In her own special way to the people she calls,
‘Come, buy my bags full of crumbs;
Come feed the little birds,
Show them you care,
And you'll be glad if you do.
The young ones are hungry,
The nests are so bare.
All it takes is tuppence from you.
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag!
Feed the birds,’ that's what she cries
While overhead, her birds fill the skies.

All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares.
Although you can't see it, 
You know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares.

Though her words are simple and few,
Listen, listen, she's calling to you:
‘Feed the birds, tuppence a bag!
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag!’"[1]

I have this image burned into my memory from childhood of the little old bird woman sitting there on the steps, perched on the edge of poverty and hunger herself, with only the company of the pigeons and sparrows, although they, at least, flock around her and bring a smile to her face.  When I was in London as an adult and visited St. Paul’s, which is a gargantuan pile of stone, I saw how a figure like that would be even more forlorn against a towering backdrop and lost.

            That, to me, is what it is to be poor in spirit.  It is to be overwhelmed, lost, overlookable.

            Poverty is a big part of that.  The form of the Beatitudes recorded by Luke doesn’t say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  It says, “Blessed are you poor.”  It goes together, though, doesn’t it?  You don’t have to be poor to be on the underside of things, but being poor will get you there pretty quickly.  A few years back a woman named Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book that is a classic, or will be someday.  Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America tells how she, a middle-class writer with a long list of educational accomplishments, went to work as a waitress and as the employee of a cleaning service, and what she learned about the dark side of our economic system.  She learned what it does to people, body and soul.  She wrote:

“To draw for a moment from an entirely different corner of my life, that part of me still attached to the biological sciences, there is ample evidence that animals — rats and monkeys, for example — that are forced into a subordinate status within their social systems adapt their brain chemistry accordingly, becoming 'depressed' in humanlike ways. Their behavior is anxious and withdrawn; the level of serotonin (the neurotransmitter boosted by some antidepressants) declines in their brains. And — what is especially relevant here — they avoid fighting even in self-defense ... My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers — the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being 'reamed out' by managers — are part of what keeps wages low. If you're made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you're paid is what you are actually worth.”[2]

Extrapolating from that, she notes that a CEO who makes, say, two hundred times what the company’s average worker earns may come to think that he is worth two hundred times what they are.  It has a corrosive effect on everybody.

            Of course, someone who becomes aware of their part in that may themselves be overcome by the enormity of it all.  In Jesus’ day, it was the tax collectors who profited from the Roman occupation of Judaea.  The Romans despised them for being disloyal to their own people, but they were glad to use them.  The Jews despised them for the extortion that they committed, as well as for the fact that the money they collected went to sustaining the Roman army that carried out the orders of wonderful people like Pontius Pilate and burned the occasional village or crucified criminals and left them to die along the roads outside Jerusalem.  Imagine that you were such a person.  What would involvement in that kind of life do to your soul?

            If I were to compare it to someone in today’s setting, I might ask what happens inside a drug dealer or someone who traffics in human lives or somebody who makes a living defrauding the elderly or harming children.  To do that, someone would have to block off or (worse) kill off a part of their conscience, and become indifferent to human pain.  Then, if they came to themselves and that part of them came back to life, imagine what torment would be there.

            Jesus told a story.  He said,

“‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’”  [Luke 18:9-14]

Imagine!  It was the one who had to struggle with what he had done, who recognized that he had to speak to God, but couldn’t really even bring himself to do that the normal way, who would find that God had heard him.

            However they have reached that point, whether by other people’s action or by their own, God makes the poor in spirit part of his own kingdom.  It is as if he reaches down and scoops them up the way a parent scoops up a child who is so weary and so tired that all she can do is sit down and cry, and holds them the way a parent will, until the child knows that, no matter what the problem may be, when she is held against her Father’s shoulder she can sob all she wants until, with certainty, the sense of being safe and secure returns, and she can rest.  Then, after a while, she will open her eyes again and all will be right.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 5:4]

            I’ll give Billy Graham the last word on this today.  Thinking about this verse, he wrote,

“…We must be humble in our spirits. If you put the word ‘humble’ in place of the word ‘poor,’ you will understand what He meant.
In other words, when we come to God, we must realize our own sin and our spiritual emptiness and poverty. We must not be self-satisfied or proud in our hearts, thinking we don’t really need God. If we are, God cannot bless us. The Bible says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
Pride can take all kinds of forms, but the worst is spiritual pride. Often the richer we are in things, the poorer we are in our hearts. Have you faced your own need of Christ? Do you realize that you are a sinner and need God’s forgiveness? Don’t let pride or anything else get in the way, but turn to Christ in humility and faith—and He will bless you and save you.”[3]

[1] Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman, “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins (Disney, 1964).

Saturday, June 20, 2015

"Blessed" - June 21, 2015

Matthew 5:1-12

            Toward the start of Fiddler on the Roof, there’s a scene where the main character, Tevye the Milkman, is gathered around the table with his wife and daughters as the Sabbath begins.  His wife lights the candles for the meal, signaling the Sabbath’s start, and the first thing that Tevye does is pray for his children.  The scene is a reflection of what goes on in many Orthodox Jewish households on Friday evening, when fathers will traditionally lay a hand on the head of each child, one by one, and along with specific prayers for a son or daughter, will offer a blessing that is familiar to us as well:

“The Lord bless you and keep you.  The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.  The Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
[Numbers 6:24-27]

            Today is Fathers’ Day, and it’s also the Sunday that I’m starting a sermon series on the Beatitudes: a collection of Jesus’ sayings that appears at the start of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and again in a slightly different form in Luke.  We read them as our call to worship, and will do so all summer long as we look at them one by one, taking them as if they were spoken by God the Father to a whole line of children approaching him, as he looks at each and sees both their need and the good in them and says,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…
Blessed are those who mourn…
Blessed are the meek…
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
Blessed are the merciful…
Blessed are the pure in heart…
Blessed are the peacemakers…
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…”

And with each child, a special word of blessing that applies to each one is laid on the child’s head.  For today, though, let’s just consider the first word that starts each saying: “Blessed”.
            It’s a tricky word, “blessed”.  There are a lot of good things in life which are certainly blessings.  Good health, a decent job, friends, a loving family, to be alive in a time and place of peace and freedom, a good education, even good weather – all of these can be understood as blessings.  And certainly the letter of James reminds us,

“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” [James 1:17]

The mistake is to think that having these things is the same as being blessed, or to assume that if you don’t have them that you are not blessed.  That Joel Osteen lives in a house worth $10.5 million does not necessarily mean that God had singled him out to be unusually blessed.  It might, in fact, point out something he lacks – something other than cash. 

           When you’re a day late and a dollar short, though, it might be hard to see things that way.  Jesus’ announcement, “Blessed are those who…” is therefore all the more important to hold onto.  I’m sure you’ve seen that bumper sticker that says, “Too Blessed to be Stressed” – but the Beatitudes single out people who are stressed already.  Run through the list:
  • the poor in spirit – How did they get that way?  What have they been through or what are they going through that is robbing them of their confidence or their sense of worth?
  • those who mourn – that’s pretty self-explanatory.
  • the meek – What is it like to be at the end of the line all the time?  What does it do to someone to be afraid to speak up for herself or himself?
  • those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – How often have you seen the frustration that comes to someone who just wants the world to be a fair and decent place? 

The passage continues on like that.  Jesus’ words are targeted, not for those who are too blessed to be stressed, but for those who are too stressed to recognize the blessing.

           The blessing may be in the form of a promise.  It might simply be that there will be an end to the trouble.  (Those who mourn will be comforted.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled.)  It might be a promise that something incredible will be done for them.  (The meek will inherit the earth.  The pure in heart will see God.)  Those are wonderful promises, and the source of great encouragement and hope.

           Sometimes the blessing involves an affirmation at the deepest level of who you are as a person.  Peacemakers, you are children of God.  You who are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, yours is the kingdom of heaven; not “will be”, but “is”.  It’s already yours.  Which again gets back to the notion of blessing as something that we know here and now.  Yes, we may be blessed later in some particular way, but we are blessed right in this moment.  “Blessed are…” said Jesus.

           Elizabeth Shively, who teaches New Testament Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, describes this aspect of the blessing that Jesus’ holds out this way:

“Jesus calls us to join a radical kingdom. He gives us a radical vision to match, that the kingdom of heaven infiltrates our present. We can continue fishing for people, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom at great cost to ourselves, fighting oppressive powers in Jesus' name. We can suffer for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, with the assurance that God has the last word. When we see people receiving the word of God, and finding healing and freedom in Jesus' name we can announce, ‘the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.’"[1]

The blessing is not earned somehow, but is discovered in the course of faithful discipleship.  It is revealed when, as God lays a fatherly hand on his daughters and sons, the love comes through, with or without words, and whether we are laughing or crying, being childlike or childish, that touch itself conveys to us who and what we really are so that, as Paul says,

“When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”  [Romans 8:15-17]

[1] Elizabeth Shively, “Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12”, January 30, 2011.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

"There Is a New Creation" - June 14, 2015

II Corinthians 5:16-21

           I recently filled out one of those surveys that McDonald’s does: the kind where you follow a link, answer a dozen questions, and get a verification code for a buy one/get one egg mcmuffin.  Normally, I admit, if I do one of those, I tend to skip the essay questions.  I don’t know why, but this one time, when I told them that I was neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with my dining experience, and they asked me why, I stopped to think about it.  This is what I told Mr. McDonald, or Mayor McCheese, or whoever reads them.  “I was neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, because I don’t really expect much when I go to McDonald’s.  I want something quick and cheap, and that’s really about all that you are set up for – which is fine with me.”

I felt badly about that afterward, not because I didn’t mean it but because I did.  Not every meal has to be a candidate for a magazine review.  Not every restaurant has to get a “Best of …” award.  However, I am beginning to think there may be something wrong with just writing off any part of life whatsoever.  If I look at it in a certain way, I can see my attitude bordering on the kind of bleak outlook that the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes displays.  There the low expectations show up in poetic form and we read:

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
   vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 
What do people gain from all the toil
   at which they toil under the sun? 
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
   but the earth remains forever. 
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
   and hurries to the place where it rises. 
The wind blows to the south,
   and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
   and on its circuits the wind returns. 
All streams run to the sea,
   but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
   there they continue to flow. 
All things are wearisome;
   more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
   or the ear filled with hearing. 
What has been is what will be,
   and what has been done is what will be done;
   there is nothing new under the sun.”  
[Ecclesiastes 1:2-9]

In my own defense, there is a certain kind of comfort in that, and even a kind of wisdom.  I mean, what’s the point in getting all upset over things when they just are what they are?  People are people, and they’re going to do human things.  We are all going to make mistakes and fail to learn from them.  We’re all going to disappoint one another sometime.  Get over it, already. 

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
[Romans 3:23]

The Bible says so.

            Then, too, that may be a stimulus to being more understanding and compassionate toward others.  Jesus asked,

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye?” [Luke 6:41]

If you know that you yourself are prone to weakness, maybe you will be more forgiving of others’ weaknesses.  Think of the whole Josh Duggar situation.  Without dwelling on details, one of the big problems there is not just that he did things which should never have been done, and not just that it was handled so poorly by his parents and by the church and by the police.  What puts the final nail into it is that the people who allowed misconduct to go uncorrected and the victims to go without proper help then proceeded to set themselves up as examples of the Christian family.

            Ah, who but Jesus is perfect?  No one.

            And yet… Did you hear me justifying the whole “it-is-what-it-is” attitude by saying it may somehow open the door to making people better?  Maybe there is more to it all, and no matter how blasé we are, or think we are, there is still the lingering suspicion that if we are made in the image of God, that we should be able to expect more from ourselves, and maybe even of other people. 

Jesus showed us what human life can really and truly be like.  He was understanding of our weakness, but he also looked for and brought out the best in those who met him with trust.  Someone like Zacchaeus, a tax collector who probably had committed his share of extortion along the way, found himself promising,

“Look, half my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much.” [Luke 19:8]

Time and time again, people have heard Jesus’ voice, not condemning them for their shortcomings, but encouraging them to do better, and to become the people they were meant to be from the beginning.  It’s one of the consequences of meeting Jesus heart-to-heart, that a person is changed, and their outlook on the world and on their place in it can no longer be, “So what?” or “Here we go again.”

            In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul put it this way:

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  [II Corinthians 5:16-21]

That is a big challenge, but guess what?  With Jesus’ help, you’re up to it.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

"A Kingdom Divided against Itself" - June 7, 2015

Mark 3:20-35

             I’ll share some good news with you right away.  This will be a short sermon.  I’ll share some really, really good news with you.  Good overcomes evil.  I’m going to expand on that, just a little bit, but that’s the heart of the message for this morning. 

Jesus said,

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” [Mark 3:24-26]

In case you haven’t noticed, evil is always out for itself, and is (in the long run) incapable of working for another’s well-being or even of working with anyone else.  Self-seeking is the heart of evil, as self-giving is the heart of good.  Goodness draws people together and teaches not only loyalty to those whom we love but also forgiveness for those who hurt us and to pray for those who wish us ill.  Evil is out to get even, and then to get ahead, which always means turning on itself.

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” [Mark 3:24-26]

One of our adult Sunday School classes has spent the past several months reading C.S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters, which examines the way that evil works, and in the end fails.  In the preface to that book, the author explains,

“The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint.  It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps.  In those we see its final result.  But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.  Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”[1]

Let me repeat,

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” [Mark 3:24-26]

When some people in Jesus’ day accused him of being in league with evil spirits, he talked about that being an unforgiveable sin, making good into evil and evil into good.  It isn’t that God doesn’t want to forgive, it’s that human beings block the process on our end, because who can repent of a sin that they refuse to see as a sin?  But when evil turns on itself, as it always does, its true nature appears and, in one of those great paradoxes that we call grace, that points out the opportunity to repent and be forgiven.

It’s kind of funny, too, that Jesus compares himself to a thief, stealing souls back from the devil.

“But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” [Mark 3:27]

That’s what he has done, though.  Jesus reclaims God’s people from darkness and carries them out into the light.  That’s why we can ask questions like, “Do you reject the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?” and “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”[2]  That’s why people can answer, “We do.”  It’s done not on our own power, but on his, shared with us by the Holy Spirit.

A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.  A kingdom held together by Christ cannot fall.

[2] “Baptismal Covenant I”, The United Methodist Hymnal.