Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Fourth Sunday of Ephiphany: Kingdom Vision

Gospel text for today is Matthew 5:1-12
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:
What familiar words!  Even someone who has a tenuous connection to Christianity has heard these words - at least in some form.  Thomas Jefferson praised them, and the entire Sermon on the Mount, as a marvelous ethical system.  Monty Python’s Life of Brian has the crowds on the outer edge wondering what Jesus means by “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”  On Oprah’s website, you can vote on which Beatitude best describes you.  Wikipedia has no less than 41 songs, movies and books which reference one or more of the Beatitudes – and that’s probably not a complete list! Robert Schuller calls them the “Be Happy Attitudes” and claims the list of eight blessings is “Positive Attitudes that Can Change Your Life.”[i]
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.
Such well-known words.  Everyone knows them and everyone has an idea of what they mean.  So, I want you to set everything you think you know about this very familiar passage aside for now.  Let’s look at Jesus’ words with fresh eyes.
We have to start with the context.  We sometimes forget that the gospel lesson we hear each week is part of a larger story.  Last week, after Jesus called the fishermen to follow him, we read that he then went around preaching the good news that the kingdom of heaven is here.  He then healed all kinds of illnesses, a demonstration that God’s rule is indeed here.  Today we read that Jesus sits down to do some serious teaching on what the kingdom of heaven is all about.  You could say that the Beatitudes are Jesus’ vision statement.  The rest of the Sermon on the Mount will be concrete examples of what it looks like to live under God’s rule – which is what Matthew means by the kingdom of heaven.  
Next, we need to take a closer look at the word we most commonly translate as ‘blessed’ or sometimes as ‘happy’ – the Greek word, “marakio.”  It does not refer to an emotional state, so ‘happy’ as in the emotion ‘happiness’ is not a good translation.  Neither is the typical, everyday meaning of ‘blessed’ – by which we mean we got something good in our lives.  As in, “I am so blessed to have such a loving family.”  “I am so blessed to have my health.”  Rather, we need to think of ‘blessed’ as ‘God’s favor.’ 
God favors those who…..
Just who is it that God favors? 
The Beatitudes have been interpreted as a road map to earn God’s favor.  If you just become poor in spirit, meek, a mourner, if you hunger for righteousness… then God will favor you.[ii] 
Read by themselves, it’s easy to make such an interpretation.  However, this isn’t a stand-alone teaching.   Remember, the Beatitudes are the opening illustration for the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is telling us what the kingdom of heaven looks like, not giving us the entrance requirements.
So what does the kingdom of heaven look like? Who does God favor?
We tend to look at the first four blessings as virtues, good habits to learn in order to please God: [iii]
·        poor in spirit are those who know they need God,
·        those who mourn are grieving over their sins or grieving a loss,
·        the meek are people who are humble,
·        people hungering and thirsting after righteousness are those who strive to do what God wants.
By which we mean:
God favors those who confess their need for God and their sins, and humbly try to follow God’s commandments. 
That’s undoubtedly true, but it doesn’t hold up as a vision statement.  It becomes all about what we do, and not about what God is doing in the world.
We gain more insight when we look at Luke’s slightly different version of these blessings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain.[iv]  In Luke’s account, Jesus blesses:
·        the poor,
·        those who weep,
·        those who hunger,
·        those who are hated, excluded, reviled and defamed.

Then to make it perfectly clear, Jesus pronounces woes on:
·        the rich,
·        those who are full now,
·        those who are laughing now,
·        those who are spoken well of.
That paints a very different picture of who God favors!
In the kingdom of heaven, God favors the poor in spirit:
·        those whose spirit is cast down,
·        who have been spiritually beaten up, 
·        whose lives and situations are such that they have no hope.

God favors those who mourn:
·        those who weep for their losses and for the things they never had,
·        who find their lot in life to be only misery,
·        who have no joy in life

God favors the meek:
·        We need to re-define “meek, because it doesn’t have the same connotation today as it did in Jesus’ time.  It’s not ‘meek’ as we mean it – timid or shy, or mild.
·        In Hebrew writings, it means to be humiliated.  The meek are the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the victims of injustice. 
·        In Greek writings, meekness is a virtue for women, slaves, and children (humble, submissive, know your place) – an undesirable trait for citizens. 
·        Matthew most likely used the meaning from the Hebrew Scriptures:  God favors the downtrodden, the oppressed and the victims of injustice.

God favors those who hunger and thirst for righteousness:
·        those who are starving for justice,
·        who earnestly desire to have what is right done to them,
·        who have been treated wrongly.
·        The same Greek word is translated righteousness sometimes and justice other times (it actually means what both of those words convey).
In the next four Beatitudes, God favors those who work on behalf of the first four:
·         the merciful - who extend mercy to others,
·         those who are pure in heart – having honesty and integrity,
·         the peacemakers –who work to resolve conflict and restore, relationship,
·         Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake - who are persecuted because they took a stand against the evil forces in the world.

This is the picture Jesus is painting: 
Under God’s rule,
there will be no one who is poor in spirit,
no one who is mourning,
no one who is oppressed and humiliated,
no one who is longing for justice and righteousness. 
Because everyone in the kingdom of heaven
is merciful to others,
acts with honesty and integrity,
works to resolve conflict and rebuild relationship and
is so committed to righteousness and justice that they are willing to give up everything to pursue it.
In the kingdom of heaven, everyone will do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.[v]
And maybe that’s why the Beatitudes are so well known.  They offer a vision of life the way we want it to be – an alternative to the harsh realities of a world that fights the rule of God. The world works on a whole different value system where the strong prevail and the weak go without.  A blog I read this week sums up the world’s version of the beatitudes quite nicely:
·        Blessed are the self-reliant (not the poor in spirit),
·        the cheerful (not those who mourn),
·        the bold (not the meek),
·        the proactive and the ambitious (not those who hunger and thirst for righteousness),
·         those who demand to be treated fairly (not the merciful),
·        those with a single, driving ambition (not the pure in heart),
·        those who stand up for themselves (not the peacemakers),
·        those who have a high quality of life (not the persecuted),
·        those who have a good reputation (not those who are reviled and slandered).[vi]
The Beatitudes reveal the world’s values for the cheap deception they are.   It’s a complete and total reversal of the earthly status quo. It’s good news for those whom the world denies life abundant and for those who work on their behalf.
Jesus offers a vision of life the way God intended it to be, the way we long for it to be.  Most people want life to be fair.  Most people want everyone to have their needs met.  No one is going to say, “No, I think we should ignore the concerns of the poor, or leave the mourners to grieve by themselves, or let the unjust ride roughshod over those unable to defend themselves.”
We long for Jesus vision of the kingdom of God.  We pray for it each week, in the prayer Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount: your kingdom come, your will be done. 
Our problem lies in figuring out our part in that vision.
And here’s where Jesus surprises those listening to him.  So far, we’ve only talked about the first eight blessings.  Those are the ones that are so well known.  So far everything Jesus has said is in the third person:  blessed are those people, him, her, them.  Suddenly, Jesus turns to those around him and says, “Blessed are you!” 
Second person – Jesus is talking directly to us. 
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
It doesn’t sound like it, but this is good news too.
It’s good news because when we act with mercy, God’s grace melts the heartlessness of the ways of the world.
It’s good news because when we act with hearts full of honesty and integrity, God’s truth undermine all life-denying lies.
It’s good news because when we work to bring peace and to resolve conflict and restore relationship, God’s love breaks through hatred.
It’s good news because when we steadfastly work for justice and righteousness, we become the very hands of God at work in the world.
It’s good news because when we live into Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven, God’s favor is proclaimed throughout the earth.
Blessed are you,
Familiar words, yet full of meaning -
Do you know you are blest?
Jesus called you to follow,
and in that calling,
gifted you
with the love of God,
the grace of Jesus,
the power of the Holy Spirit.
Blessed are you.

[i] The Be “Happy” Attitudes: Eight Positive Attitudes that Can Change Your Life is the title of Robert Schuller’s book on Matthew 5:1-12.
[ii] As Lutherans we may shudder a bit at such an interpretation.  After all, we believe we are saved by grace and every good thing we do comes from God.  This interpretation of the Beatitudes sounds a bit like works righteousness.  Still, this is a popular way of looking at them and perhaps, Lutheran teaching aside, we really do believe that’s what they are all about. 
[iii] I had the privilege to study the gospel of Matthew with one of the top Matthew scholars in the world, Dr. Mark Allan Powell.  The following insights on structure of the passage, and meaning of the Greek were gleaned from my class notes from Dr. Powell’s lecture on the Sermon on the Mount, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, September 23, 2009.  Thank you Dr. Powell for your generous permission to use any and all materials from your classes in our ministries!
[iv] Luke 6:20-26.
[v][v] Micah 6:8, NRSV.
[vi]“Fan or Friends: Reflections on Matthew 5:1-12,” Alyce McKenzie, Patheos blog,

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Third Sunday in Epiphany: Risky Business

Brock and I were talking leisurely after the monthly church potluck.
He said, “Back when I was a lawyer…”
“Wait!  You were a lawyer?  When?  What made you decide to stop?”  I was stunned.  Brock was in his mid-thirties, and worked as the head of a social service agency.   Becoming a lawyer involves a lot of time, money and effort.  After the   challenge of law school and passing the bar, people usually don’t just quit being a lawyer – especially to take a lower paying job.
“Well right after law school, I became a public defender.  It was good work, I thought.  It would be my job to make sure a defendant was innocent until proven guilty.  And I was a good public defender.”
“So what changed your mind?”
Brock looked a little embarrassed.  “Well, I had just won a big case.  I made the morning paper, front page with a picture and everything.  The picture showed me standing at the defendant’s table.  You could see my client right beside me.  And the caption read: Accused found not guilty on a technicality.
“It tore at my heart.  I was pretty sure my client had been guilty, but he said he wasn’t.  And it was my job to work in his best interest, to make sure that he was not sent to prison unfairly.  But in reality, defense law was a game – try to see where the police messed up so our clients could go free.”
“I realized as a follower of Jesus, I could no longer participate in making sure the guilty went free.  I could no longer be a lawyer when my legal responsibility to my client got in the way of justice.”
Brock went on to head up an agency that provides services for children who were mentally ill, troubled, or abused and their families.  He firmly believed that picture in the paper was God’s call to a different career.
Now I’m not saying that Christians can’t be lawyers, or that public defenders work against the kingdom of heaven.  Both can be honorable professions where people can do wonderful work for God.  And as in any profession, there can be lawyers who are not ethical or fair and get in the way for God’s will to be done.  But for my friend Brock, in order to follow Jesus, to be a fisher of people, he needed to walk away from a promising, lucrative career. 
There’s something risky in making such a change to follow Jesus.
Peter and Andrew, James and John are fishermen.  They have their boats, their jobs.  It’s hard, dangerous work, but they make a living.  They had a measure of security.  And yet, when they hear Jesus call, they leave their nets immediately and start following him. 
There’s something risky in leaving your job and your home to follow a little-known teacher around. 
There’s something risky in making such a commitment in the face of the unknown.  Peter and Company had no way of knowing just how difficult their new job as disciples of Jesus would become and what risks they would take.  They didn’t know that Jesus’ journey would end at a cross.  They didn’t know that because of the empty tomb, they would commit themselves so fully to Jesus’ call that they would give their lives for it.

Yeah, but that was then and this is now. 
Back then, the disciples were called to follow Jesus while he was on earth.  Now, we don’t have to leave our home and jobs to follow.  Sure a few people are called, like my friend Brock, to make drastic career changes. And some people are called to become a pastors or full-time church workers.  Otherwise, most of us can follow Jesus from the comfort of our homes and our churches.  There is really no risk in following Jesus today.    
Or is there?
There’s something risky following Jesus right where you are.  Ask the Samaritan woman at the well, who went back to all the people who knew exactly who she was to testify to Jesus[i].  Ask the man healed of a legion of demons, who begged to go with Jesus, but Jesus called him to stay where he was, with all the people who knew him from his crazy days, to testify to Jesus[ii].
Following Jesus is risky. If we answer his call, we just may be asked to change, asked to do something we’d rather not.  We might have to give up control.  There’s always the chance God might call us somewhere we don’t want to go.
Jesus calls us to follow him in every area of our lives.  And that's risky too.
There’s something risky in following Jesus in your marriage.  Because when you follow Jesus, sometimes he calls you to forgive your spouse when you’re not ready to forgive, to love your spouse when he or she is the most unlovable.
There’s something risky in following Jesus as a parent.  Because there are just days when you simply can’t be patient, and kind, and loving, days when you want to scream and give up.
There’s something risking in following Jesus as a neighbor.  There’s that whole love your neighbor as yourself thing after all.  And you are just sure it doesn’t apply to that neighbor – the one who blares music at midnight, or lets the dog run wild all over your yard.
There’s something risky in following Jesus at work.  The boss may be a jerk.  A co-worker may steal your idea.  Maybe the way you do your job would have to change if you really did it as if you were working for God.
Following Jesus is risky.  It’s like playing follow the leader – we need to go where Jesus goes, do what Jesus does.  And if we look closely at the gospels, we find Jesus going to the poor, the sick, and the outcast.  We see Jesus healing, forgiving, teaching, and loving. 
Starting next Sunday, the gospel reading is the Sermon on the Mount.  In it, Jesus tells us what is expected of those who follow him.  It is a breath-taking vision of God’s kingdom.  It is extravagant. 
It is an impossible challenge. 
It is risky.
We read it and say, there’s no way we can do this!

But let’s look again at Jesus with the fishermen.  “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.”  I will make you – all we have to do is follow.  Jesus gives us what we need to follow him.  Jesus’ call empowers and changes.  In those four words - I will make you - Jesus transforms the impossible into the possible and the risky into the sure.
Suddenly “risky” is not full of scary possibilities, but full of exciting potential.
Not everyone is called to change careers like my friend Brock.  Not everyone is called to become a pastor or full-time church worker.  But each one of us is called.
Jesus calls us to all sorts of places – to our families, our neighborhoods and towns, our jobs.  Jesus calls us to be parent, child, friend, and neighbor. 
Jesus calls us to wear many different hats – vocations to use good Lutheran terminology.  Jesus calls us to follow him in our jobs.  Jesus calls us to follow him with our hobbies and our interests.  Jesus calls us to follow him in our volunteer work, at church and in the community.  Sometimes Jesus’ call is lifelong, and sometimes it’s only for a time.
 And even when we say no, when we say it is too hard, or it is impossible, Jesus continues to gently call us.    
We are called in the waters of baptism, claimed and named as children of God.  We are called to live into the name God has given us, and into the life God desires for us.  We are called and we are gifted with the abilities and gifts and strengths for that call.  
Jesus calls us “Come and follow me.  I will make you fishers of people.”  And before we even take the first step, Jesus gives us the means to answer the call.   
How has Jesus called you?  Where is he calling you to follow him this week?

[i] John 4:1-39
[ii] Mark 5:1-20

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Journey continues: From Genesis to Job

As you might remember, I am reading a chronological Bible this year.  And I have faithfully (more or less) done each day's readings.  And suddenly, I'm through Genesis, Abraham has been blessed with a son, that son has sons, and Jacob has 12 sons, and becomes Israel.  Joseph is in Egypt and the whole clan comes to weather out a famine. 

Great!  I'm ready to hear about baby Moses and deliverance.  Bring on the plagues!  But no - the next stop on this journey through the Bible is Job.  Job - really? OK, no one really knows for sure when the events in the book of Job took place. The notes in my Bible says that tradition has it that Job happened sometime around the time of Abraham, Issac or Jacob - but it could have been as late as the Babylonian exile.  I guess the Exodus will just have to wait.

So, I'm reading Job.  I like Job.  It's a great story and it's a troubling story.  Here's the story as I learned it in Sunday school:

Job is a good man, faithful to God.  One day God is holding court with all the angels and Satan is there.  God says to Satan, "See my servant Job.  There's no one like him - he's faithful and just and praises me at all times."  And Satan says, "Sure he does - you've given him all sorts of good things.  He has no reason to complain.  But take away everything he has and he will curse your name."  So God says, "Do you best, but don't harm Job."

In one fell swoop, Job loses all his livestock, his crops, and his seven sons and three daughters.  And yet he still praises God.  God says to Satan, "See, I told you so!  Job is still a righteous guy, even after he lost everything he has!"  Satan responds, "Well, yeah, but he's still got his health.  If he was in sick and in pain and miserable, then he'd curse you."  And God says, " Do your best, but don't kill him."

Next, Job gets a horrible illness complete with nasty, seeping boils on his skin.  He is miserable and sick and in pain and wants to die - BUT he doesn't blame God and he still praises God's name.

God is victorious in this contest with Satan.  Satan did his best and Job still praised God.  So God restored all Job had - he was healed and he had even more livestock and crops and wealth than before.  And he had seven more sons and three more daughters! And Job lived happily ever after.

OK, is anyone beside me troubled that Job is a pawn in a duel between God and Satan?  I mean, what kind of God says, "here's this good man who didn't do anything wrong, but go ahead and heap troubles on his head?  Sure, Job gets it all back - and more besides - but what about those 10 (adult) children who were killed to prove God's point?  The Sunday school story is meant to lift up Job as an example to children - always give thanks to God, just as Job did.  I wonder if that's really message kids take home after hearing this story. 

But there's more to the story!  If you stop with the Sunday school version, you miss out on the really good stuff!

Now, if you read Job, you will discover that the Sunday school version covers only chapters 1, 2 and 42:7-17.  There's a whole bunch of stuff left out in chapters 3 to 42:6!  Job and his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, sit and talk a long while. The conversation goes basically like this:

E:  You must have sinned - God is punishing you.  Confess to God and be healed.
J:  I did nothing wrong.
B:  Your kids must have sinned - so God is punishing you.  Confess to God and be healed.
J:  I am blameless.
Z: Don't be so proud.  Confess your sins and be healed.
J: How can I convince you that I am blameless?

This goes on for 36 chapters!  People talk about having the patience of Job, meaning being able to put up with all kinds of bad things and waiting for God to make it right.  I think the REAL patience of Job is putting up with his friends' condemning advice for all that time! 

Back to us and what Job means for us today.  Read carefully those 36 chapters and you'll hear Job's friends tell him that if he was only more righteous, if he's only confess his sins, if he'd just pray more in the right way, he'd be healed and God would bless him again! 

How many times has something bad happened to us and we think:  oh, if only I had prayed more, or if only was a better Christian, God wouldn't be doing this to me? Or worse, our Christian friends tell us, "Oh if you would just confess that hidden sin.  If you would just read the Bible and pray more.  If you would just have more faith or believe the right way, God would bless you again.  Or worst yet, we hear it from our pastor!

Hear what Job has to say:  Bad things happen to good people.  The rain falls on the wicked and the just.  Things happen - even if you do everything right, even if you pray hard, even if you have faith.  Losing your job, or having a loved one die or getting cancer doesn't mean God is punishing you. 

And here's the best thing about the book of Job:  Job doesn't meekly accept this with an "oh well, it must be God's will for me now and I'll just be patient and ride this out until things get better."  Oh no, he doesn't!  Job yells at God.  Job challenges God to show him where he had sinned and if he hasn't to explain just why he is suffering.

And God answers Job.  First, God reprimands Job's friends for telling him that if he was a better person, God would bless him.  In fact, God says that they are guilty of telling lies about God!

Then God talks to Job.  Now I am not really sure God's answers really answer Job's questions.  That's the point:  people suffer, bad things happen and we have no easy answers why.  But God is there, in the good and in the bad, right there in the midst of all the troubles the world can bring.  God is there, with us.  And God is in charge, "drawing straight with crooked lines" (Father Andrew Greeley), turning chaos into order, and making all things new. 

And that's why I love the book of Job.  There are no easy answers, no pat explanations.  It's a book of real human experience, and real human emotion and real human questioning.  Instead of a story about God's duel with Satan, it's really a story about the struggle we all have with the evil we face in the world. 

It's still a troubling story, to be sure.  But it's troubling because there are no easy answers and we want easy answers. 

It's troubling, because it's not a story about the good people being blessed and bad people getting what they deserve - but we know that's not how the world works anyway.

It's troubling, because when it comes down to it, we rely on God's grace and love and mercy to sustain us but we really deep down want a list of things we can do to achieve God's blessing.

It's troubling because it gives us a space to doubt God's goodness, to question God, to be angry at God and to demand God answers us the way we want to be answered, and we aren't comfortable with that kind of honesty with God. 

But God is comfortable with it, even desires it.  Because in the honesty and the doubts and the questions, Job comes to know God a tiny bit better.  Honesty, doubts, fears, questions and trust are the stuff relationship is built on.  And Job comes out with his relationship with God strengthened.

I love the book of Job.  I love the space it opens up for me in the times when I am hurting, and my friends are not makings sense, and the world is out of control. 

I love being able to just sit in the ashes with Job.