Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Preached for chapel worship at LSTC on Wednesday, November 4, 2020 – the day after Election Day.

Texts: Revelation 7:9-17 / Ps. 34:1-10, 22 / 1 John 3:1-3 / Matthew 5:1-12

View this sermon, posted to the LSTC YouTube channel.

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It’s been almost a week since I deleted the social media apps on my phone. At some point I finally realized that my 6am doom-scrolling was not only a miserable way to begin my day, but that it was actually impacting my mental health. I was learning nothing new from the breathless barrage of think pieces about the election, but I was exhausting my overloaded nervous system with headlines and takeaways that kept my body awash in adrenaline with nowhere to flee and no one to fight. I faced a similar decision once again last night, choosing to break my quadrennial tradition of staying awake through the long hours of the night to wait for an announcement of the projected winner in the presidential election, or at least the determination that no winner could yet be declared. Instead, as it became clear that we would not know for another day or longer, I took myself to bed and prayed for the gift of sleep.

In place of all the panic inducing media, I have been attempting to meditate for a few minutes each day, to order my thoughts and to return to myself. Sitting a few days ago, listening to a guided meditation, I was invited to reflect on the divine qualities of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity by inviting the memory of someone who has loved me unconditionally to come to mind. Then I was asked to imagine that person speaking to me, addressing me with the following:

“May you be caring towards your own body and mind.”

“May you see your own limits compassionately.”

“May joy fill and nourish you, always.”

“May you be open to the true nature of life.”

Sitting in silence, imagining my mother’s voice speaking words of blessing and hope, I could feel my body come alive, my heart expand, my mind shaking off its fears, and my soul reaching forward. Addressed by the memory of love, things seemed possible that only minutes before had seemed unlikely at best.

This is how I imagine the crowd might have received Jesus’s words of blessing, his beatitudes, as he began the sermon on the mount. For much of my life I have heard the beatitudes as a sort of index of salvation, a catalogue of the qualities I would need to develop in order to find favor with God. It didn’t matter that I was raised with and confirmed into a clear knowledge of salvation by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9), because I was also being formed in a parallel process by the world’s catechism of competition and consumerism, self-reliance and scarcity. I knew that God was good, and I feared that I was not good enough.

It has taken time, years really of listening to people’s stories, for me to not only understand but to really trust that I am not alone in my fears and self-doubts. The world has not hurt us all in the same way, nor to the same extent, but we have all been wounded. Some have been taught to hate themselves, and some have been taught that hate is the price of belonging. Some have been taught to expect nothing but sorrow, and others that grief is an unacceptable weakness. Some have been taught to make themselves small, and others to align themselves with greatness. Our wounds, these patterns and habits, we inherited them so early that it was easy enough to confuse them with our very selves. They function as prisons and, sometimes, we collude with them by confusing them with the deepest truth about ourselves, becoming collaborators with our own oppression.

Each of the gospels chooses its own way to present the beginning of Jesus’s ministry that says something about how it understands Jesus. Mark begins with an exorcism. Luke with a sermon before the hometown crowd. John with the miracle at Cana. In the gospel of Matthew, the sermon on the mount is presented as the summary of what Jesus has been teaching as he moved throughout Galilee. It functions as a sort of inaugural address. Matthew’s Jesus comes to us in the form of a teacher. Like Moses descending Mount Sinai with the life-giving law, Jesus calls the disciples and addresses the crowd as an instructor in righteousness. So, as any good teacher knows, you have to meet the students where they are and build on what they’ve already been taught. This means that, for Jesus, the first lesson is to address head on their miseducation on the topic of their value as human beings and where they stand in God’s economy.

When Jesus calls out the categories of blessing, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek …” he isn’t presenting the ruler by which the crowd will be measured. He is describing the people in front of him. The crowds that “followed [Jesus] from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Mt. 4:25) were hungering and thirsting for righteousness. They were the poor and the persecuted, the meek and the mourners. They might have been familiar with the text of Psalm 70, and they were certainly familiar with the lament it voices,

“But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God!

You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!” (Ps. 70:5)

And so, here is where I want to pause and return to the reality of the moment we are living in as we gather for worship this morning. It is the day after the election and there is no clear outcome yet. We are waiting. But we are not just waiting for the votes to be counted. We are waiting for justice. We are waiting for an end to the hatred and division that have ripped our neighborhoods and our nation apart. We are waiting for families separated at the border to be reunited. We are waiting for an end to police brutality directed at and the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people. We are waiting for a real response to the all-encompassing crisis of climate change. We are waiting for the basic pre-conditions of an abundant life: clean water, housing, and healthcare to stop being treated as luxury commodities and to be redistributed as the birthright of all God’s children. We are waiting for the dismantling of nuclear armaments that have not gone away, even if we’ve stopped talking about them. We are waiting for homes free from domestic violence and workplaces free from harassment. We are waiting for that day when the sacred reality queer people’s relationships, and trans and non-binary people’s lives, are not up for debate in our churches or our courthouses. We are waiting for an end to the diseases and health conditions that do not impact us all equally. We are waiting for the end of COVID. We are waiting and waiting and waiting and we don’t know how much longer we can wait! 

O Lord, do not delay!

(breathe)

“May you be caring towards your own body and mind.”

“May you see your own limits compassionately.”

“May joy fill and nourish you, always.”

“May you be open to the true nature of life.”

(breathe)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the commonwealth of heaven.”

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

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

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

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will perceive God.”

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

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

“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 …”

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Imagine it now. Form the picture in your mind. See the face. Hear the voice speaking to you from the heart of God’s love. Blessed are you. Feel your heart open. Let your body unclench. Shake the fears from your mind. Yearn your soul towards its future.

Jesus, the teacher, has many lessons to teach and many assignments to give. Later on he will tell them about the power of small things, seeds and yeast and mustard trees. Later on they will learn what happens when you plant this gospel in the ground. But today, while the crowds have gathered ‘round and the whole world is waiting, Jesus blesses those who would follow him with words of compassion and lovingkindness and patience and joy

Finally, a post-script on joy:

We are trying to do many things, perhaps too many things, with today’s worship service. It is not only the day after the election, but it is also the day on which we are observing All Saints Day. Very shortly we will read aloud as a part of the prayers of the people the names of those who have died in the last year. Here at LSTC we are grieving the deaths of the Rev. Dr. Cheryl Stewart Pero and the Rev. Paul Landahl, losses that evoke the memory of other saints from this community who now rest in God’s power and presence. These names represent the smallest fraction of those whose lives have now ended. Some welcomed their deaths at the end of long lives lived well. Nevertheless, they are missed. Some had their lives stolen from them by act of violence, the acute violences of murder and abuse and the chronic violences of oppression and neglect. This year we are especially mindful of all the lives that were taken by the COVID pandemic, losses which in some cases might have been preventable. We are not only mourning, but we are raging.

In the context of that grief and anger, joy may feel out of place. Take for example the hymn that will send us out at the close of worship this morning, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Given all that we are suffering right now, how can we take part in singing a song whose joy can barely be contained by its Dixieland melody? 

Let me suggest, however, that joy is a revolutionary act, precisely at moments like this. Joy is written into the creeds that accompany the act of baptism, the declaration that though Jesus was “born under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried” that “on the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God” and that we are those who “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world yet to come.” Joy is our rebellion against every voice that would teach us to sit down and shut up. Joy is the shape of the pruning hook for which we traded our spears. Joy is the sound of shackles falling from our feet. Joy is our soul’s response to the voice of Jesus, speaking from the heart of God, calling us blessed.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, February 2, 2014: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Texts:  Micah 6:1-8  +  Psalm 15  +  1 Corinthians 1:18-31  +  Matthew 5:1-12

Whenever God closes a door, He opens a window.

God never gives you more than you can handle.

God needed another little angel.

It’s all part of God’s plan.

Blessed are the poor.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We say so many things when we don’t know what to say.  We say things we’ve heard other people say, things that have been said to us, even if they weren’t all that helpful. We say things because it seems better than saying nothing, even if there’s really nothing to say, because we want to do something, even when it seems there’s very little we can do.

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

9781594632587_p0_v2_s260x420Yesterday morning a small group of us, four of us, got together for coffee and some conversation about Anne Lamott’s newest book, “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair.” She started writing it about a year ago after the school shooting at Sandy Hook that ended with twenty-eight dead, to try and make sense of the senseless suffering that surrounds us in this world, from the personal to the national. She writes, “where is the meaning in the pits? In the suffering? I think these questions are worth asking.”

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

There are forms of faith, even of Christian faith, that confidently assert that God wants you to be rich, to have everything your heart desires; forms of faith that suggest that what you “put out” is what you get back, a not-so-subtle sort of victim-blaming that places responsibility on those with the least, with the last, with the worst for not sending enough “good energy” out into “the universe.”

Don’t count the apostle Paul among them. He writes,

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor. 1:27-29)

There’s a lot of counter-cultural wisdom packed into those few verses, and I think they go a long way toward helping us understand the revolutionary claims being made by the Beatitudes, by this recitation of blessings for those the world mostly considers anything but blessed, but the two most important words in my opinion are “God chose.”  God chose what is foolish.  God chose what is weak.  God chose what is low.

tumblr_mklakwfk2H1qfnvwzo1_500There is an unfortunate way of reading the Beatitudes that too often reduces them to something we might choose.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” becomes to those who hear it a call to feed the hungry. Don’t get me wrong, we are called to feed the hungry and it is a call that our congregation takes particularly seriously, but the Beatitudes are not simply planks on God’s platform of social justice that we might choose to take up.  The Beatitudes are God’s declaration in Christ Jesus that God chooses, and that with God’s election comes a new kingdom, heaven for the forlorn places of this earth, a commonwealth of peace with justice, a beloved community.

Similarly, there is a way of reading the Beatitudes that suggests that there is a hidden virtue to being each of these things: that if we make ourselves poor, we will be closer to God; if we make ourselves pure in heart, we will see God; if we make ourselves peacemakers, we will gain access into God’s family.  Again, it’s not that there isn’t value to be gained from a life of intentional simplicity, or mercy, or purity; but to read the Beatitudes in this way turns into a program what God chooses, what Jesus declares as a present reality.  The Beatitudes are not a list of rewards intended to motivate us toward a new set of resolutions for ourselves. They are a declaration of independence from the values of this world that prize power over people.

Last week’s gospel reading ended with Jesus calling the disciples away from their nets. This week’s gospel reading begins a series of readings that we’ll hear over the next few weeks from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Moving from last week to this week, we might imagine that Jesus began his earthly ministry by offering these words of comfort to the wretched of the earth, that the Beatitudes were like so many other platitudes offered to hurting people that offer the promises that things will get better without explaining how that might ever take place.

But that is not how it happened.

Our lectionary skips three verses between last week’s call of the disciples and this week’s Sermon on the Mount.  Here’s what we missed.  After Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, James and John, to follow him and fish for people, Matthew’s gospel says,

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. (Matt. 4:23-25)

Far from being a set of weak words offered to soothe hopeless people and hurting bodies, the Beatitudes come as a summary of what God in Christ Jesus has already done. His ministry begins with a great gathering of all the people who’d been left out of the social contract made between the empire and its citizens, the people who’d gained nothing from Rome’s never-ending wars with its neighbors.

Jesus’ work is like a beacon, a light to the nations, that calls into one assembly those who were weak in their bodies, weak in their minds, weak in their spirits; that calls into one community those from the small towns of Galilee, like Capernaum where Jesus had made his home, to those from Jerusalem, the seat of local power, to those from beyond the River Jordan, who’d crossed a great river, un Rio Grande, to join this new nation, this kingdom of heaven.

Border crossing at the Rio Grande.

Border crossing at the Rio Grande.

What I am saying, sisters and brothers, is that the Beatitudes are not just words of comfort offered to hurting people, not just things to say when you don’t know what else to say.  The Beatitudes are a statement of faith that God chooses what the world does not choose, that God chooses you!

Paul writes, “consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26).  He may have been writing to the church in Corinth, but the words became scripture and have been shared with the church for the last two thousand years because they have remained true.  Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you feel chosen by the world. You are elderly, and feel passed over or forgotten by not only friends, but family.  You are young, and struggle to find a place to offer your gifts.  You are poor, and do not always know how you will make it to the first of the month.  You are foreigners, and you do not speak the language.  You are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender or queer, and you have to convince yourself each morning when you wake up that it is alright to be yourself, to occupy your own skin. You are activists in a world that values conformity.  You are recovering from surgeries, you are recovering from addictions, you are recovering from violence, you are recovering from your past, you are recovering from your life.  Not many of you are wise by human standards, not many are powerful, not many are of noble birth.

But God chose you. Blessed are you. Not because of how special you are, or what you may someday do. Because of who God is, here and now, at this very instant, calling to you, “follow me.”  The kingdom of heaven, which belongs to the poor, which belongs to the persecuted, is not waiting for us at the end of this life. It has come near. It has arrived. It is already breaking in, interrupting, uprising. It is now. Blessed are you right now.

Where is the meaning in the pits, in the suffering? It is a question worth asking, but it is not answered only with words. Anne Lamott suggests that whatever meaning is going to be found will be found together, as we stitch ourselves to one another so as not to lose ourselves to the horrors of the world.

Jesus launches his ministry by calling together all those whose experience left them feeling lonely and isolated, by touching them, healing them. In response, they followed, they gathered at the mountain to hear what he might say or do next. They went from belonging in no kingdom to belonging to the kingdom of heaven, from being lost to being blessed, just like you.

Amen.

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