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.



Sermon: Sunday, January 26, 2014: Third Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Isaiah 9:1-4  +  Psalm 27  +  1 Corinthians 1:10-18  +  Matthew 4:12-23

So, just out of curiosity, who here has ever been part of a “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work” day — either as a child or as a parent? My parents never officially took me to work with them as part of a vocational exploration program, but given that my dad works for the church, pretty much every Sunday was a “take your child to work” day around our house, and apparently it worked. I ended up in the family business.

Listening to the story of Jesus calling Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, away from their family business I’m struck by how Jesus just shows up at their place of work and says, “follow me.”  It’s like God declared a “Take Your Jesus to Work” day, which is like a “take your child to work day” except that instead of expanding your child’s sense of vocation, it expands yours.


This feels like the perfect set-up for a “Coffee with Jesus” comic strip. If you haven’t seen “Coffee with Jesus,” it’s a web-based comic strip drawn in the style of  the old weekly drama comics in the newspaper like “Mary Worth” or “Judge Parker,” except that each strip features a conversation between Jesus and one or more other people in four panels. I imagine the strip going something like this:

Carl: I’m so glad I took my wife’s advice and brought our daughter to see where I work!

Jesus: Why’s that, Carl?

Carl: Because I got to see what I do through her eyes and to show her that how you do what you do is just as important as what you do.

Jesus: Wow Carl, sounds great. Just imagine what would happen if you took me to work!

The actual scripture defies such easy morals, and the point of the story is generally understood to be that Jesus calls disciples away from their work rather than camping out at their workplace, but I’m still struck by the simple fact that Jesus shows up where his followers work.

If Jesus showed up where you work, what would he see?

Who are you at work? Are you an employer or an employee?  Do you give the orders or take them? Do you work with your hands? Do you work with your words? Do you get paid for your work? Do other people see what you do as a job?

What skills are required in your line of work? Do you have to know how to change diapers, change printer cartridges, change lanes, change minds? Do you assemble meals, assemble documents, assemble buildings, assemble people?

Are you the same person at work as you are at home? At the gym? When you’re out with friends? When you’re with your parents, or your children, or your partner? When you’re at church?

Whether we work in the home or in the marketplace, in the system or on the streets, much of our lives are spent working. Making a living. If Jesus showed up where you work, what would he see?

The gospel of Matthew tells us that when Jesus heard that John the baptist had been arrested, he left his hometown of Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.  The biblical archeologists tell us that Capernaum was a town of about fifteen hundred. So, not very large by our standards. In the 2010 census, Logan Square had about 75,000 people, so that gives you a sense of scale. We’re talking about a community of people who knew each other, and since Jesus had made his home there, we can assume they knew him as well.

Jesus begins his preaching ministry among the people he knows best, not the people of his hometown but the place he settled as a young adult. The content of his proclamation is that the kingdom of heaven has come near, and that the people needed to repent. Our inclination may be to hear that phrase “kingdom of heaven” as an entirely spiritual one, but remember that Matthew’s gospel began with King Herod’s murderous paranoia over the birth of an infant messiah whom the wise visitors from the East named as the king of the Jews. Jesus’ message from the start is that the kingdoms of this world are fleeting and that their days are numbered, and he called his followers to repent.

In calling people to repent, Jesus isn’t asking them to become apologetic for their misdeeds, to be sorry for their sins, he’s calling them to change their minds. The word being translated here as repent indicates a changed mind, perhaps a renewed mind, that rejects the world as it is and dedicates itself to the world that is breaking in. The kingdom of heaven, which has come near, an end to business as usual.

What would happen if Jesus showed up at your work and declared an end to business as usual?

Consider that for a moment. If Jesus came to the place where you spend your day — whether that be giving lectures or seeing clients or casting nets — and declared an end to business as usual, what would you immediately think he was talking about? First thing that comes to your mind. What would have to change?

Would it be the hours? The billing structure? The labor contract?

Would it be the way people talk to each other? The way people avoid talking to each other? The way people talk about each other?

We live in a world, an era, a thought-regime, a kingdom that encourages us to compartmentalize. We’re told that to be successful at work we need to be one kind of person, but to be successful at home we need to be another kind of person. We’re encouraged to take part in religious life only insofar as it doesn’t get in the way of the “real” world.

But as those who follow him find out, Jesus will show up at your place of work and call you to repent, to change your mind, to reject the world as it is and be recruited to a new world order, an emerging reality, a beloved community, the kingdom of heaven. Once we heed that call, we risk being called all kinds of names. Idealistic. Unrealistic. Soft-headed. Irrational. Foolish.

Calling the community at Corinth to repentance, Paul anticipates the way our faith will be dismissed out in the world, proclaiming

“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:10-18)

We will be reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians for the rest of this season leading up to Lent, and for much of it he will be talking about the scandal of the cross. Far more than some variable in an equation that results in salvation, Paul insists that the cross, which is foolishness for those who prefer signs or wisdom, is actually the way God chooses to be in the world. That God’s glory is found precisely in God’s willingness, God’s preference, for the broken, bleeding places of this world, this dominion, this kingdom. The cross is God’s promise that there is no division we can create, no compartmentalization that can stand against God’s loving insistence that we are all in this together.

This is the ministry Jesus calls his followers to when he meets them at the shore, at the office, in the courtroom or the classroom, next to the crib, around the dining room table, under the bridge. We are called to repent of all the ways we imagine it to be acceptable when we set out to be one person at work and another at home or out in the world. We are called to stop that, immediately, and to be made new through Christ Jesus, before whom we are always the same person, always and everywhere, whole and beloved by God.

When Jesus showed up at their place of work, where Peter and Andrew and James and John were fishing, they stopped what they were doing and they followed him. But notice that Jesus said to them, “follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matt. 4:19).  Jesus, a man they had to have known in their small town by the sea, calls to them in terms they can understand using a metaphor from their place of work. I think this signals to us his respect for what they did, and God’s intention that we have work that is good and meaningful, but not wed to the values of this world, values of profits and power over people. As their ministry together continued, Jesus and his disciples would return to Capernaum.  They would set sail again, they would fish again, they would work again, but never in the same way. They were changed.

And if Jesus showed up where you work, where you make your living, what do you think would have to change?