Tag Archives: The Beatitudes

Lost

A Sermon for 3 November 2019 – All Saints Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Luke 19:1-10. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because Jesus was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So Zacchaeus hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of 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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

Have you ever been lost? I don’t mean lost, as in you refuse to stop for directions lost while somewhere in like the middle of the tangle of roads that make up Hillwood and West Meade. But truly lost! So that you start to feel the panic deep down in the pit of your insides.

I remember the time when I was about four years old and my parents and my six-year-old sister and I had stopped at a huge mall in the big city on our way back home to the little village in which we lived. It was around Christmas. My parents were trying to make it a special afternoon for us to be able to see Santa Claus at a store similar to a Macy’s. It was one of those huge department stores in a mall we rarely visited. One minute my six-year-old sister was with us. The next minute, she was gone. My parents might tell you it was only for a little while, but to me it was a torturous lifetime. Long enough for mall security to be involved – which was way longer than I ever had been lost in the little grocery store back home, where I wandered off each week. As soon as mom and dad noticed my sister no longer was at our side, we started looking in the racks around us. This is the sister that always has been a bit of a rule-breaker, so it wasn’t unlike her to step outside the bounds. But to do so in the bustling mall of the big city where we knew nobody was absolutely terrifying! Images of my sister being lost went running through my little mind. With potentially horrible things happening to her. And the prospect that she may never return to us. Fear burned in my soul. At one point my parents left me with a store clerk in order to go find her. At another point they returned to me – without her – still. I remember when at last a man in a uniform, who looked to me to be a giant, came walking towards us – his huge brown hand dwarfing the tiny pale hand of my sister. Even though we weren’t a family that hugged a lot back then, when at last the man returned my sister to us; I threw my arms around her in relief! If you ever have been lost, perhaps you too know how absolutely horrifying it can be!

The InLighten film entitled “Lost and Found,” tells the story of a desperate young woman (https://inlightenstream.com/upcoming-films/#Xbu7XyVOmEc). Her beautiful chocolate face flashes on the screen as she tells that from an early age, she felt like she didn’t quite belong. She had been adopted into a family of other children in which she had the darkest skin. Her new parents did their best to raise her. But one impressionable night at a club, she saw someone pull out over $2,000 worth of cash. In awe she asked the girl where she got that kind of money. The next thing you know, the beautiful young woman turned her first trick. In the film she explains: “After that first man walked out of the room; in my mind, I was worthless. So, I didn’t deserve to have a normal life anymore” (Ibid.). Tearing up the woman says, “I didn’t deserve to have real love. I deserved what I was going to get” (Ibid.). If you ever have been lost like this, you too know just how terrible it feels!

After Hours Ministries is street outreach to women and men involved in prostitution. Associate Director Jen Cecil explains that “when you’ve been commodified, it completely tears down your self-worth. A lot of these women aren’t in it by self-choice,” she says (Ibid.). They do it to survive. They do it to avoid getting hurt by someone who has taken over control of their life. Cecil quotes a heavily debated statistic to claim that the average age of entry into prostitution in the United States is between the age of 12 and 14. Other sources claim the age is somewhere between 17 and 19. In 2015, one source records that “trafficking cases had been reported in over 85% of Tennessee counties including many rural areas” (https://www.google.com/amp/s/m.huffpost.com/us/entry/5203042/amp). Cecil reminds: “These are your daughters. These are your sisters. These are your best friends. These are women created in the image of God, who God loves and pursues after” (Ibid.). They are lost. Needing to be found.

In the film, the teary young woman who ended up on that path goes on to tell that the daddy for whom she worked typically wouldn’t let her out of his sight. But one night she asked if she could go outside to smoke a cigarette. He told her to stay close to the door so he could keep an eye on her. The woman explains, suddenly “I saw this mini-van pull up. I remember thinking like: ‘Why are these people here?’ It’s a disgusting hotel. It was a family that got out and they had bibles.” Unable to hold back the tears at this point in the film, the sobbing woman says, “They handed me a bible and said, ‘We just want you to know Jesus loves you.’” The woman explains, “I remember thinking like: ‘you don’t understand. Jesus can’t love me anymore’” (Ibid.). Have you ever felt that kind of isolating shame? That kind of being totally lost?

That night, volunteers of After Hours Ministries prayed with the woman. They told her she was safe. They told her she was going to be okay. On film, light begins to creep back into the woman’s eyes as she remembers, “I had this redemption of thought,” that night. She says: I realized “God sought me out. Not because God wants something from me. But because God loves me” (Ibid.). As the film comes to a close, the voice of Jen Cecil pipes back in declaring, “A lot of times the women don’t believe that they are loved or that they are seen. I believe God desires for us to know that God is with us. And that we are loved. We are seen.” Cecil declares, “I have seen and I know the depths God has gone to for me. And that God will go there for you as well” (Ibid.).

It’s reported in the gospel of Luke – the gospel that especially likes to tell stories such as these – that one time, Jesus was passing through the city of Jericho. Jericho was a place responsible for receiving goods imported from the East (Connections, Yr. C., Vol. 3; 2019. Kenyatta R. Gilbert, p. 4580) which made it a place a tax collector could do quite well. A man lived there. One who was accustomed to climbing; for he had climbed the ranks in the world of taxing those around him until at last he earned the title of chief tax collector. For the Roman Empire, this man worked. Ensuring his fellow Jews paid the price in support of the ones who forcibly occupied their land. In the eyes of everyone, this man was lost – very lost. Though not as far off as those who can’t even see they are lost. Like those in the story who criticized that Jesus would dare spend time with ones such as Zacchaeus.

It would be easy to stay focused on people like Zacchaeus. People like the young woman in the film who found herself so lost. The point we are not to miss, however, is that we all are lost. In some ways. Maybe we’ve not been ensnared in the grip of the sex industry. Maybe we’ve not been caught up in exploiting others for the benefit of the empire. Maybe we’ve just known the depths of loss after a loved never returns. Maybe we just carry the pains from parents who hurt more than helped. Maybe we’ve just felt the sting of shame because of our gender or orientation or abilities or whatever so that we know exactly how it feels to want nothing more than to be seen by some One who will love us completely nonetheless.

Earlier in the gospel of Luke, these words are recorded – words assigned by the lectionary for All Saints’ Day every third year: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:20-31). The Beatitudes according to the gospel of Luke offer a helpful reminder that it is for the lost that God seeks. Not because being rich or full or full of laughter is any terrible thing. But because if we don’t know it yet: woe! We must! We all are lost – needing to be found. Once we know, salvation is ours! We get found by a God who is with us always. A God who sees and loves and seeks out the lost. For such a marvelous gift, let us give great thanks!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

 

Blessed are Those who F.R.O.G. (Fully Rely on God)

A Sermon for 17 February 2019

A reading from the gospel of Luke 6:17-26.  And remember that right before the reading we hear today, the gospel of Luke records that Jesus choses 12 to be apostles – ones sent out in the world to carry on his mission.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus came down with them (the twelve) and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.  20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:  ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.  24 But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  25 Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

Ah!  The beloved beatitudes according to the gospel of Luke:  the blessings and the woes.  Blessed!  Blessed are the poor!  Blessed are the hungry!  Blessed are they who mourn!  Blessed are the rejected!  Rejoice and be glad for theirs is the kingdom of God!

I don’t know about you; but all I can ask is:  why?

The closest I’ve ever come to being poor has been trying to eek by on little to no money coming in as I worked my way through a very expensive Divinity School degree on SpaghettiOs, oatmeal, and plain rice – which was about all I could afford in those days.  Honestly:  it didn’t feel very much like a blessing.  Most of us only have been truly hungry because we forgot to get ourselves up or out of whatever we’d been doing to make our way into plentiful kitchens, with running water, and electricity to ensure a refrigerator full of fresh food and drink.  Can we imagine real hunger?  Pain in our bellies because there is no food to be found.  No freshwater.  Again.  Because of the circumstances of our lives.  Why would anybody say it’s a blessing to be hungry?  And what about mourning?  We all know this one – or will at some point in our lives if we’re willing to open our hearts enough to truly love.  To allow ourselves to fall deeply in love with a partner or a friend or a child or a vocation so much so that our own insides literally feel broken when they are no more.  When things fall apart.  When our loved one dies.  When it all comes to an end.  Any of us who have truly loved – which I imagine is every one of us sitting in this room – know how it feels to mourn.  In that dark pit, it doesn’t feel very blessed, does it?  Why would anybody say blessed are they who mourn?  And what about those being hated, rejected, reviled?  While I’ve known my fair share of struggles as a woman in this biz – one who sometimes doesn’t fit others’ expectations – I don’t remember ever experiencing the evil face of hatred.  Some of us may know this one better than others and I doubt that it feels very much like a blessing to be told that who you are or what you represent or what you believe or how you choose to live in this world is unacceptable.  Worthy of persecution through fear mongering or violating crime or riotous rage.  Why would anybody say it’s a blessing to be reviled, rejected, persecuted on account of the Son of Man?

Maybe it would help to remember what it means to be blessed.  To have the favor of another upon us.  In The Soul’s Slow Ripening:  12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred, Christine Valters Paintner writes a whole chapter on “The Practice of Blessing Each Moment.”  She explains the verb blessing.  She writes:  “Blessing is to live life from a place of gratitude, to offer thanks and honor for everything that we have, taking nothing for granted.  When we remember to bless . . . we begin to live from an enlarged sense of being” (Sorin Books: 2018; p. 39).  Paintner’s definition comes close to what the opposite way of living is like – the way Jesus warns with woe.  Paintner writes:  “At the heart of this practice and way of life is paying mindful attention to our lives.  I know hours, days, and weeks can go by sometimes before I discover I have been skimming the surface of things, preoccupied by too many tasks to complete.”  Paintner continues:  “My calendar and to-do lists become misplaced holy grails.”  . . .  She concludes:  “When we skate through life’s endless demands on us, we lose our connection to (the) deep well of nourishment” (Ibid., p. 40).  Perhaps there’s no guarantee that poverty, hunger, mourning, being despised will lead to staying connected to The Deep Well of Nourishment that is God.  But isn’t it the case, that when there is less of me (as Eugene Peterson’s take on the gospel of Matthew’s beatitudes goes in Peterson’s biblical translation called The Message).  When there is less of me, there is more of God and God’s reign.  When we’re at the end of our own ropes, we’ve no where left to turn to but to God and God’s people.  When we’ve lost all that really matters to us, our arms are left open to be embraced by the only One who really matters (paraphrase of Matthew 5:3-4).  When we can manage on our own, why bother to call upon God for anything?

I wonder about that a lot when I reflect upon the big picture view of what’s happening in so many churches today.  Everywhere we look it appears as if we’re in lean days as the body of Christ.  And then I remember what I’ve noticed in myself – what I’ve noticed in you and in other churches I’ve served these last ten or more years of significant cultural shifts.  Churches are doing things they never, ever, ever would have tried before.  Opening their doors, their hearts, their minds – not just on Sundays, but on Mondays through Saturdays too.  I have a sister who is staff support for the older adult ministry organization of Presbyterians who has told me of all sorts of senior adult ministries happening all throughout the week in congregations that used to do little more than Sunday morning worship.  I read about churches beginning Holy Grounds coffee shops in strip malls to get to know whoever comes in – in particular:  being open late nights Fridays after high school games for students to have a safe place to gather.  I’ve heard of congregations doing things like Lenten podcasts for those who commute in the community – kicked off by drive through imposition ashes on Ash Wednesday.  I see members of the body of Christ finding new ways to build meaningful spiritual connection with one another.  And – as I heard one of you remind us last Sunday night regarding our Mending Heart lunches:  welcoming through our open doors those who may no longer be welcomed by their biological families in their own homes.  I behold it all and wonder:  if everything was going just great – pews over-flowing and church coffers overstuffed – would any of these new ways of being disciples in the world be taking place?  If we could manage it all on our own, would we need to rely so heavily on the winds of the Holy Spirit to blow fresh vision into Christians here and around the globe?

About the beatitudes as recorded in the gospel of Luke, one biblical commentator writes, “God does not take kindly to half-heartedness.  God does not bless us as we maintain the status quo, reaping the accolades of those who hear us and follow us.  God does not bless us as we bathe in respectability in the eyes of the world.  God does not bless us as we quietly maintain tradition and gloss over or ignore prophetic voices calling us back to God – in the church and in the world.  God does not bless us as we protect and build institutions and empires.  God does not bless us, well off, full, comfortable, hearty, and well-spoken of.  The realm of God rests among those who have nothing but God” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, David L. Ostendorf, p. 360).  That same commentator writes:  “God wants the entirety of our lives.  The destitute poor have nowhere to turn but to God” (Ibid., p. 358).  For let’s face it:  only that which is empty can be filled up.  Only that which is broken can be shared.  Only those who know their need, can rightly ask.

Jesus wants his followers to know.  The blessings.  The woes.  The joy of utter reliance upon God.  The surprises we will see.  The Way with space enough to unfold.  Why?  Because there, in the midst of what is rejected, broken, battered within and without – there in what is called the Pascal Mystery – there dwells God.  Sovereign of all; crucified yet risen Christ!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (all rights reserved).

“God’s Blessings”

A Sermon for 29 Jan. 2017

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 5:1-12 (NRSV). Listen for God’s word to us.

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

This is the word of God, for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Before us today stand God’s blessings. Words so beloved that we might have them cross-stitched on a pillow or hanging on a placard on a wall in our home. I’m not sure I have any original insights to share about these blessings from God. But I do have a few stories. So listen for the word of God.

I once met a waitress when I was at a pub for a reading group. The woman was quite attractive and I noted how she flittered about joking flirtatiously with the male patrons. Halfway through our meal she noticed our books and let us know she was an avid reader. It was a heavy theological text so we were hesitant to tell her about it; but she was insistent. The content of the book had to do with the experience of so many who struggle with mainline Christianity. I told her about it while my colleagues at the table rolled their eyes giving off this “Jule, just stop talking” vibe! Before we knew it, the woman leapt into her story about being raised Christian but not really being a part of it any longer. She said she still let’s her parents take her daughter to Sunday School sometimes. Reading between the lines this beautiful, young, unmarried mother made it clear that she is met with disapproval in her small town. Though she may need them most, her church lets her know her actions are beyond their welcome. . . . “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus once said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3).

Last weekend while I was at my final intensive for Spiritual Direction training in Hendersonville, North Carolina; we heard from a man who is part Cherokee. I noted a sadness about him – a depth of pain he had known, partly from the details of his own journey. Partly from the history of the Cherokees, which his father and grandfather made sure he knew. We were at Kanuga Conference Center in the mountains of North Carolina where Cherokee Indians once roamed free. Our speaker returned often to the Removal of 1830 – an act passed by congress and signed into United States law by President Andrew Jackson. . . . Maybe it was the best policy for a burgeoning nation. Maybe there was no other way for differing groups of natives and settlers to get along with one another. Maybe we choose fear over love and allowed a strong, proud people to lose so very much. . . . According to the gospel of Matthew, on a hill one day, Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt. 5:4).

Over twenty-five years ago when I moved from a small town in Wisconsin where everyone had enough, I started seeing things I’d never seen before – sights that continue to this day. One sign reads: “Homeless and hungry. Please help.” Another states: “Veteran: will work for food.” The worst are when you can see the wounds – the man with half a leg who’s out there near the Old Hickory Boulevard Kroger almost every Sunday morning. We don’t really know their stories – whether the signs are true or not. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. What strikes me every time is the posture: hung heads, minimal eye contact – which most of us drivers never mind. Have you ever stopped to wonder what’s going on inside? I mean standing there in frigid temperatures and the hottest days of summer too. Waddling along up the line of traffic begging for someone to give a handout. I imagine there’s gotta be some deep desperation inside. Most of us have too much pride to beg like that day in day out. Most of us do what we can to avoid being at the mercy of others. Imagine the humiliation carried as he sits, as she waits, as the young vet waddles along hoping someone will have compassion. . . . A man who would carry the humiliation of us all as he shouldered the cross once said: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Mt. 5:5).

Have you seen signs – often in neighborhoods – but ones we need all over the city that read: “Drive as if every child you see on the street is your own.” Change drive to live as if every child you see on the street is your own and it pretty much summaries the good news of right-relationship we come to know in Christ. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said, “for they will be filled” (Mt. 5:6).

You don’t get to see the church Clerk’s Questionnaire completed each year for the General Assembly on behalf of the ministry you undertake. It starts off easy: name of the congregation, address where it gathers for worship. Moving on to things like number of active members – 85 for HPC at the end of 2016 – and average worship attendance – holding strong at the end of 2016 with an average of 53; question 44 finally asks this: “How many different individuals (nonmembers) do you estimate that your congregation served or ministered this year through its various ministries (events, programs, outreach, and visitors)?” Anyone want to take a guess? . . . If you assist with the Food Pantry, or help with outreach to Tulip Grove Elementary School, or wait each week for someone to come for financial assistance through HPC’s Good Samaritan ministry; then you may not be shocked to hear that in 2016 this small-but-mighty congregation of 85 active members ministered to the needs of 195 people – 195 strangers really whose lives you impacted for good through your generous welcome, your faithful gifts, and your deep compassion for the least of these. We don’t get to hear often enough about the difference made when folks needed just a little something to get them through to the end of the month, or somewhere to rest when the pressures of their lives are too much, or a circle of love to welcome them no matter the challenges they are facing. 195 lives impacted for good! You made that happen. You didn’t have to. But “blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says on that mountain. “For the merciful will receive mercy” (Mt. 5:7).

Pure in heart? A woman I know, who possess an incredibly beautiful spirit, wants to become an ordained priest. It’s not impossible in her tradition. She’s about my age with a supportive husband. Together they already are leading a different kind of ministry in a building someone has allowed them to use rent-free. They’ve created a community where people about their age or younger gather together for dinner once a week. Wine is served. Conversation is had. Folks who once were without any sort of connecting, caring community are finding it there. The woman I know wants to be ordained in order to be able to fully serve this widening community, and others like it, with the sacraments of faith: baptism into the way of Christ. Eucharist around the Table of the Lord. . . . “They will see God,” Jesus says of those who open their hearts in sincerity and honesty and pure devoted-love (Mt. 5:8).

In 2006, the book The Faith Club was released. After 9/11, three New York mothers came together to write a children’s book about each of their faith traditions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The Faith Club captures the fascinating, honest, conversations of Ranya, Suzanne, and Priscilla as three strangers come together regularly to discuss the core principles of their faith and the key struggles they experience with their own and each other’s’ religions. . . . Maybe it’s just a baby step, but “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

I know a professor at a local church college. She’s there as a woman at an institution that sees women as inferior – unable to attain the same levels of authority in the church as men. It’s hard work, but she’s trying to show a generation of that particular shade of Christianity that there’s a different way to understand the world: one where our contributions are appreciated no matter our bodily form. I’ve listened in horror more than once to stories that show that she’s suspect if not from the administration, then from the students themselves. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” says our Lord, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:10).

Just a few stories for us to consider this week as we think about some of Christianity’s favorite words. God’s blessings . . . Whether they console or challenge, may they remain with us every day.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN 2017  (All rights reserved.)