Saturday, July 18, 2015

“Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness” - July 19, 2015

Luke 18:1-8

            About a month ago, George died.  George was 94, but when I first met him he was only 73.  Even so, it fascinates me that he shared a certain story with many people about something that had happened to him when he was about seven years old.  That was how old he was when his parents died.  His aunt and uncle had a few children of their own and couldn’t afford to take him and his sister in, so George found himself with the choice of living either at Girard College in Philadelphia or at the Milton Hershey School in Hershey.  If he went to Hershey, he would have to get up early every morning, put on a pair of overalls, and help with the farm chores before class.  If he went to Girard, he would roll out of bed, put on a white shirt and tie, and head to breakfast.  He chose Hershey, because he didn’t want to wear a tie every day.  During his first week there – and here’s what he wanted people to know – someone in his house took some candy that wasn’t theirs and, being the new kid, the house mother assumed that it had to have been him.  She confronted him, and he told her it must have been someone else, and she punished him both for taking the candy and for failing to own up to it.  More than six decades later, he was still stinging from the false accusation.  If I think about someone who hungered and thirsted after righteousness, I begin there.

            That experience created in him a strong sense of fairness and built on an already-strong sense of right and wrong.  He had no problem speaking his mind, which can be good or bad.  I was pastor to a two-point circuit, where the two churches had voted to merge, and George was president of the trustees at the church whose building was going to be changed from a worship center to an outreach site.  The Sunday after that decision was made, I went outside and there on the sidewalk was a woman whose name was on the church rolls, but we saw her maybe once a year.  Maybe.  She was talking to George and sniffling, “How could you do this?  This place has always been my church!”  George looked her straight in the eye and said, “If it’s that important to you, how come we   never see you here?”  He wasn’t being mean.  He was being honest. 

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness have that characteristic.  They look beyond the immediate situation and ask about the underlying causes.  Why is church attendance lower?  It’s because people aren’t getting themselves to church.  Why is there crime?  Sometimes it’s because people get pushed to the edge and they get desperate.  Sometimes it’s because they are selfish and greedy and heartless.  How do you know the difference?

Ahhh… there’s a catch there.  None of us can be totally sure about what’s going on inside someone else, and if we are not careful we can make the mistake that hurt him so deeply and wrongly accuse someone.  Furthermore, sometimes it’s not just the people who are unjust.  Sometimes the whole system we live with is set up in an unfair way, and what do you do then?

Do you work the system?  George was an insurance agent before he retired, so I’ll use an insurance example.  Mind you, this has nothing to do with him.  There are times when someone who is in the hospital might benefit from staying one or two days longer, but their insurance is running out for that particular admission.  It is not unheard of for a patient to be discharged, and later that day to have to be readmitted, which is a new event, and although they have to face a second set of copays, they would be covered for this new stay.  So back they go to the floor they had just left.  It’s a silly game, and questionable on many levels, but it is known to happen.

The search for righteousness, on the personal and on the social level, is messy.  Listen to the parable that Jesus told about a woman who wanted justice, a judge who wasn’t really interested in providing it, and the contrast to how God sees things.

“He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”  And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’” [Luke 18:2-8]

I hear in that both the promise that there will come a time when, in the words of the prophet Amos [5:4] justice will

“roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”

and an important warning to us not to assume that we are always the ones on the side of righteousness, not to judge too quickly or to omit mercy from the picture. It may be no mistake that right after Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” he went on to “Blessed are the merciful.”  Without that, righteousness becomes self-righteousness, which is poisonous to the human soul.  Billy Joel described what that is like.

“There’s a place in the world for the angry young man
with his working class ties and his radical plans.
He refuses to bend, he refuses to crawl,
he’s always at home with his back to the wall.
He’s proud of the scars from the battles he’s lost.
He struggles and bleeds as he hangs on his cross,
and he’ll go to his grave as an angry old man.”

We all, I hope, long for justice and righteousness.  No one ever did so more than Jesus, and he went to the cross for it.  But he went to the cross.  He is the Savior, and he will bring it about – be sure of that.

            Our place is to hear his question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” and to answer, to the best of our ability, “Yes, Lord.  Look over here.”  We are always walking that line between doing right and the awareness that we do wrong.  Luther said that to be a Christian is to be at the same time righteous and a sinner.[1]  That means that we will always be on the road toward perfection, but that the blessing is not only for those who have arrived but also for those who know that one day God himself will put things to rights.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” [Matthew 5:6]

And whoever took that candy, I am sure that he and George and Jesus have finally talked it over, along with the house mother, and sorted it all out.

[1] Writing in Latin, Luther used the term simul justus et peccator.  

Saturday, July 11, 2015

"Blessed Are the Meek" - July 12, 2015

Genesis 18:20-33 (Matthew 5:5)

            “The meek shall inherit the earth.”  Jesus didn’t come up with that on his own.  It is a loose quotation from Psalm 37:8-9.

“Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
            Do not fret – it leads only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off,
            but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.”

That throws light on what is meant by “meek”, which often is taken to be the same as “weak”.  “Meek” and “weak” are two different things.  To be meek is to be among “those who wait for the Lord.”   Meekness is not timidity.  Meekness is knowing your place with respect to the Lord.  A great example of real meekness, instead of the kind of fearful backwardness that passes for meekness, comes from the story of Abraham’s negotiation with God on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

The lead-in is that Abraham had had a visit from three mysterious travelers who revealed to him and Sarah that, despite their advanced age, they were about to become parents, and not by adoption.  As they were leaving, they casually dropped the information that they were on their way to oversee the destruction of the cities because of the way that they (unlike Abraham) treated strangers and the vulnerable.  Abraham’s nephew Lot was living there with his wife and daughters, so Abraham immediately went into rescue mode.  He would persuade God himself to relent.  Only listen to how meekly he goes about it:
“So the men turned from there, and went towards Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ And the Lord said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.’ Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And he said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ Again he spoke to him, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ He said, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’ And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.”  [Genesis 18:20-33]
It was respectful, kind, and persuasive.  In the end, it didn’t work out but it wasn’t Abraham’s fault and the travelers ended up rescuing Abraham’s family anyway, out of all the population.

            That is closer to what the Bible thinks of as “meek” than the way we usually use the term.  Again, in the Bible, meekness has to do with our relationship to God.  If we are respectful and humble before God, that is meekness.  At times that makes us easygoing with people, but at times it may also mean that we draw the line, because we cannot always please both and, in that case, it’s always both right and advisable to choose God.  That should be obvious, but it isn’t always so easy in the moment.  As one commentator puts it:

“Understood biblically, meekness is making choices and exercising power with a divine rather than a social reference point.  Meekness has nothing to do with blind obedience to the rulers in whatever country we happen to live in or to bosses in our work place or compliance with that still more powerful force, our peer group.  Meek Christians do not allow themselves to be dragged along by the tides of political power or to be led by the smell of money.  Such rudderless persons have cut themselves off from their own conscience, God’s voice in their heart, and thrown away their God-given freedom.  Meekness is an attribute of following Christ, whatever the risks.”[1]

So you end up, over the years, with Christians who have been some of the most peaceful, kindly people, just saying, “No,” and getting into trouble for it.  Yet out of that, great good has come for many, and the ability to lead peaceful, quiet lives – to inherit the earth.

            William Penn went on trial in 1670 for street preaching.[2]  Yes, the Quakers started out as street preachers of the sort you see occasionally outside train stations and at bus stops.  King Charles was trying to suppress dissent after the English Civil War had finally settled down, to prevent further trouble based on religious disagreement.  So he had folks like the Quakers rounded up.  At his trial, Penn demanded to know the specific law under which he was being charged and when the judge couldn’t point to anything apart from a broad reference to disturbing the peace, Penn asked to be released.  The judge refused, and the trial went on.  The jury came back, saying that they couldn’t convict a man simply for speaking on a street corner.  The judge ordered the jury to reconsider (meaning to come back with a guilty verdict), and sent them away.  They came back again, saying they couldn’t convict.  The judge then had them locked up while they reconsidered.  In prison, they became even more stubborn.  Then he denied them food or water but they still would not change their verdict.  Finally, the judge disbanded the jury but kept them in prison until each juror paid a fine.  Meanwhile, he had Penn and one other man sent to prison for not removing their hats in court, which was the best he could come up with. 

Did the meek get anything out of that?  Consider this: William Penn did not do anything but ask for his rights.  That was not out of line.  The jury did not do anything but consider the facts of the case and act as responsible jurors, respecting the law more than the judge did.  Penn was meek and they were meek, with respect to their Christian conscience.  As a result of that one trial, juries in English-speaking nations became independent of the will of judges, and because Penn saw what could go wrong and wanted to put it right, we live in a Commonwealth whose foundational laws allowed for people to follow their consciences in religion and in civic life.  That’s why, not only here, but on a national level, Quakers and Mennonites and Brethren and others are exempt from military service.  That’s why United Methodists in Utah are not forced to support the Mormon Temple, and why Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have to say the pledge of allegiance to the flag.

There are times and places it isn’t always easy to express that loyalty, but the meek find ways.  When I was in college, a friend of mine inherited his grandfather’s record collection and started listening to every record, one by one.  Eventually, he came to a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that had been made in Berlin in 1942.  The conductor was Wilhelm Furtwangler, who was no friend of the Nazis, but remained at his post throughout their rule.  “You have to hear this,” my friend told me, and he put the needle down at the beginning of the “Ode to Joy”.  It was the oddest, yet maybe the best, rendition of it I have ever heard.  It messed with Beethoven’s timing.  There was no way that anyone in the hall didn’t know how it was written, or what Furtwangler was doing, because there was a point where he repeated a line that isn’t repeated in the score and then held the last word, and held it and held it and held it, then a long rest afterward.  “Every cherub stands before God,” they sang, “before God!  Before God!  Before God!”[3]

There, at the heart of an empire that was seeking to set one people above all others and the control of one man over all that people, where that one man had been trying to replace God’s name with his own wherever he could, the court musician, as it were, led the imperial singers in these words:

“Joy, Daughter from Elysium,
Your magic brings together
What custom has sternly divided.
All men shall become brothers,
Wherever your gentle wings hover.
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!
Brothers, above the canopy of stars
Must dwell a loving father.
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!
Joy, beautiful spark of the Divinity!
Daughter from Elysium!
Joy, beautiful spark of the Divinity!
Spark of the Divinity!”[4]

In May of 1945, Furtwangler was relieved of his duties when the Allies entered Berlin, but seven years later his name had been cleared, and he spent the last two years of his life back at the podium where he felt most at home.

            “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

[1] Jim Forest, “Blessed Are the Meek” in The Ladder of the Beatitudes (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY, 1999), 49-50.
[2] See Paul Mark Sandler, “The Trial of William Penn” in The Daily Record, February 2, 2007.
[3]  -- Listen especially at the 58:00 point.
[4] Translator unspecified; translation found at .

Saturday, July 4, 2015

"Blessed Are Those Who Mourn" - July 5, 2015

Jeremiah 31:15-17

            It feels kind of odd to be preaching about how those who mourn are blessed on a holiday weekend.  The sound of fireworks and Sousa marches are still in our ears, and people’s minds are on potato salad and burgers.  Wave the flag and blow the fire sirens!  That’s what this weekend is about.  Yet the history of any nation, ours included, has a lot of grief attached to it.  Run down the road to Valley Forge.  For us it is a familiar place for a long walk or a picnic, to listen to the bells from the carillon, or just a shortcut from Paoli.  The reason there’s a National Park there, of course, is that Washington’s troops froze and starved there while the British were secure and comfortable downriver in Philadelphia.

           Not every nation has known the healing or has been able to put ancient hurts behind them.  The Serbians and the Croatians are not likely to trust each other very soon and the Macedonians and Albanians are going to keep an eye on both.  Can you blame them?  On the other hand, what happens if you don’t at least begin to seek healing?

           In some cases, the grief is kept alive by ritual observance.  When some of my friends who are Jewish were setting the date for their wedding, they had to rule out the day they really wanted because it turned out to be, in the Jewish calendar, the ninth day of the month of Av.  That is an annual observance of national calamity, like Pearl Harbor Day and 9/11 rolled together, when they are supposed to fast and mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  That was, certainly, a terrible day.  It was what Jeremiah spoke of when he said,

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
   lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
   she refuses to be comforted for her children,
   because they are no more.
[Jeremiah 31:15]

            Time passes, though, and life moves on.  We are not fighting the Revolution anymore, and people even get all excited when a new prince or princess is born in London.  Pain and loss and grief, on the national scale as well as on a personal level, can become something else.  It may not go away, but it can be changed. 

           It isn’t just time, though, that makes the difference.  People have to own up to the grief that they experience and not to hide from it.  Ann LaMott has written:

“…the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it. …I’m pretty sure that only by experiencing the ocean of sadness in a naked and immediate way do we come to be healed – which is to say, we come to experience life with a real sense of presence and spaciousness and peace.”[1]

In other words (in Jesus’ words):

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

            Grief can sneak up on you, but so can God’s grace.  You’re in a friend’s kitchen talking, and she knocks a mug off the counter onto the floor, where it smashes into forty-seven pieces.  She breaks into tears, and you want to say, “That’s okay, everybody gets clumsy sometimes,” but it’s a good thing you don’t, because before the words are out of your mouth she’s telling you that the mug was her father’s and he died last year and it’s like one more piece of him is gone, and one more piece of life that will never come back.  Suddenly you are looking into a far deeper depth than a cup of tea.  You get a glimpse of another person’s heart and soul.  So you comfort your friend the best that you can, and listen and maybe there’s a tear or two, and if things are right, then by the time you leave you are closer to one another and the revelation of loss has led to a deeper friendship.  As Joni Mitchell sang, “Something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day.”[2]

            The past few weeks have highlighted some of the dark side and some of the pain of our own national life.  We have been reminded how much of this country was built up by slave labor in a land that was settled by displacing the people who were here first.  The early history includes epidemics of smallpox and yellow fever and the later history includes people coming from Europe to work in dismal conditions in the mines and factories, and it never has been easy for the farmers who grow those amber waves of grain.  All the reminders of that stuff have been piling on for months, and if you haven’t felt the weight of it, maybe you just haven’t been paying attention.

            I am convinced, though, that the mourning does not come without a blessing, some kind of comfort.  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure yet what that will be.  Nevertheless, I will express a hope and a speculation about what God may have in mind.  It’s something that I believe God has in mind not just for this nation, but for every nation.  It includes comfort not just for one person who mourns, but for all who carry grief in their hearts.  I think it’s the discovery that we have within us all, by God’s grace alone and not by our own nature, the ability to ask for and to offer forgiveness and to demonstrate the kind of caring that sees each human being for who they are, one who carries the image of God, and who is therefore worthy of dignity.  I think that we have finally started to do what Abraham Lincoln put before the Union only about a month before his death.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”[3]

           It is, after all, “a patriot’s dream that sees, beyond the years, our alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears”.  It is a patriot’s dream that God will look not only upon our nation but upon our world and “mend her every flaw, confirm her soul in self-control, her liberty in law”.  Blessed are those who mourn, for in that day they will be comforted.


“Keep your voice from weeping,
   and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
   they shall come back from the land of the enemy; 
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord.” [Jeremiah 31:16-17]

[1] Anne LaMott, “Ladders” in Small Victories (New York: Riverhead Books, 2014), 29-30.
[2] from “Both Sides Now”
[3] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address”