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Embracing the Mature Spirituality of The Beatitudes

blogpic BeatitudesA Sermon preached on Matthew 5:1-12 at St. Mark Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL on January 29, 2017

“Good for you!” “How fortunate!” “How enviable!” This is what Jesus proclaims in The Beatitudes with the word, “Blessed!” "Good for you when you are poor in spirit! How fortunate that you mourn! How enviable are the meek! Good for you when you are persecuted. How fortunate are the merciful! Blessed!"

WHAT? What on earth is Jesus saying? He seems to affirm everything we avoid. We could call The Beatitudes, “How to not be an American,” “How not to win friends and influence people.” The Beatitudes will not be found in the Self-Help section of our local Barnes & Noble.

Our society encourages us to avoid the painful experiences of life. We live in a consumer culture that bombards us with products that can assuage our pain and try to make us happy. We are constantly tempted to avoid all feelings of grief, insecurity, sadness, rejection—if we can just consume enough to fill that empty painful space inside. Some fill this emptiness with shopping, others avoid painful feelings with alcohol or drugs, still others with exerting control over others, some use food and sugar to bring a sense of comfort (my personal favorite) and others, with a feverish pursuit of goals in the race up the ladder of income, status, success, or power. Consumption and Busyness can be great antidotes to feeling any of the hurts that Jesus cheers for in The Beatitudes.

Yet, we are not getting any happier. A Harris Poll a year ago, reported that only 1/3 of Americans report being “Very Happy” which is a decrease from previous years. Our strategies aren’t working, but relentless consumerism tempts us to try again with the next new and improved party drink, fashion style, sugar-free super snack, or the latest life hack for career success. We never get off the merry-go-round because the emptiness, despair, grief, meekness, fear, or rejection doesn’t go away. It’s the true nature of addiction: once the rush wears off, we need another fix of whatever helps us ignore our pain and temporarily feel a little better.

If this is where we end up, then how can Jesus call being “poor in spirit, mourning, hungering for justice, being merciful, persecuted, and rejected, “blessed” “enviable,” “fortunate” and “good for us?!”

Last summer, the director of the childcare center at the church I serve asked me to give a Bible lesson once a week to the kids. She thought maybe I could start with The Beatitudes. So I stood before the elementary aged kids and asked this same question: “why would Jesus say, ‘good for you’ when you are sad, ‘good for you’ when you are grieving or lonely, ‘good for you’ when people reject you?” A third or fourth grade girl shot her hand up in the air and said, “Because then God can help you!” No wonder Jesus said we had to become like a little child to enter God’s kingdom! (I asked if she could come and preach this sermon for me today, but she had to go to Sunday School!)

Because then God can help you. Isn’t that true? When things are going well, when we’ve got the world by the tail, when we’re planning our work and working our plan as if we were the author of life and creation, and we’re wrapped up in our own ego, we’re not paying attention to God’s presence and love and help in our life.

But when our plans don’t work, when we’re plunged into crisis or grief, when we’re lonely or rejected, and life just isn’t working, we become open. A space opens up in us that wasn’t there before, for God to enter our lives and bless us, strengthen us, comfort us and help us. When we can remain in that openness when life falls apart—and hold off going on that shopping spree, or pouring that beer, or diving into that bag of chocolate: God can slip in where wouldn’t let him go before. God invites us to really feel the pain in order heal it and have it lose its power over us; God is there to embrace us with deep love (often through another person), fill us with a peace that passes all understanding and surround us with God’s healing presence.

These gifts are there all the time of course—we’re just not available to receive them often times, until things fall apart. Even psychology affirms this process. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a University of California psychology professor and author of The Myths of Happiness, explains: “It’s often negative experiences that help us grow and learn, which is vital for being happy.” Or in the language of faith, negative events are the doorway for experiencing the blessedness of Jesus and the peace of Christ.

Franciscan Priest Fr. Richard Rohr says it this way: “the way down is the way up.” Or he says, you can say it the other way, “the way up is the down.” Rohr writes, “There is a cruciform shape to reality it seems, and loss precedes all renewal, emptiness makes way for every new infilling, every transformation in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous “form.” Nothing in the human psyche likes this pattern.” This is why we try so hard to avoid it!

But we can’t and don’t get to peace, contentment, or blessedness without grappling with whatever form of suffering life gives us. And that is the way of the cross. The way to new life and resurrection is through suffering, where God claims power over all of death, and makes it evidently clear that love consumes and supersedes all of it. Resurrection means that love and life win in the end, no matter what! Richard Rohr continues with, “Love is the energy driving the universe forward.”

Jesus embodies this all-encompassing love of God which drives the universe forward. Because didn’t Jesus become and embody all of these Beatitudes in his life? Jesus was poor in spirit, for he humbly acknowledged he had nothing and was nothing apart from God—and he inherited the kingdom of heaven. Jesus mourned over Jerusalem and wanted to take them under his wings like a mother hen, and he wept at the death of his friend Lazarus—and he was indeed comforted. Jesus was meek—not weak—in the face of Pilate and his accusers. He grounded his identity in God and in God’s dominion, so he remained calm and centered during the trial and did not shift with the circumstances—and the earth and all that is in it belongs to him. Jesus was merciful, most powerfully seen in his words from the cross when the rest of us might seek vengeance, he uttered, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”—and he did receive mercy.

We could go on with each of The Beatitudes. Instead of giving in to the limits of human experience and emotion, Jesus embodies for us what it looks like in the midst of hardship, to be at one with and fully defined by God—to be blessed, and enviable and fortunate, no matter what. Retired Theology Professor Sr. Carla Mae Streeter calls the Beatitudes “the revelation of Jesus’ own mature spirituality.” She describes that in Jesus we see the “total life of a person whose consciousness is permeated with God" (from the book, Foundations of Spirituality)

Jesus begins his ministry with The Beatitudes in Matthew so that the disciples and us, understand from the outset, that Jesus calls us to live with this same consciousness—one that is permeated with God. Jesus calls us to allow the difficulties and grief of this life to push us to seek our own mature spirituality. It’s a spirituality that enjoys the good things and the blessings in this life—like a smooth glass of wine paired with apples and cheese, or a cold beer at the Super Bowl Party, a suit that makes us feel like a million bucks, a dark chocolate truffle after a family meal, a clear plan to meet our goals—without these things becoming hindrances or addictions that get in the way of our deepening relationship with God. Instead, these blessings become celebrations of our spiritual maturity as a person who is permeated with God’s presence and love.

So, good for you when you are poor in spirit! How fortunate that you mourn! How enviable are the meek! Good for you when you are persecuted. How fortunate are the merciful! For you are open and receiving all the blessings God has for you. Such blessedness is being loved, embraced and consciously living in the peaceful, comforting and empowering presence of God no matter our circumstances. Blessed are you!

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Gift of the Heron

blogpic heronI watched a great blue heron in the creek behind our house yesterday. It was fun to watch her movements through the water, the S-shaped curve of her long neck that straightened out as she stood still, the bending and peering into the water as she watched for minnows that might serve as breakfast. She acted completely like a heron—not an egret or an owl, not a squirrel or a snake. She behaved exactly as she was created, carrying out her morning routine with the surety of creatures oblivious to any possibility that they could be other than what they are.

The heron was also oblivious to the spiritual lesson she taught as I watched her from my kitchen—the practice of self-acceptance. While I wouldn’t give up the self-reflective consciousness that separates humankind from the rest of the creatures on our planet, it does come with its own traps of self-doubt, self-absorption, comparing ourselves to others, and needless suffering when we question the worth of our existence. I do seek to continually grow and mature as a person, which can be propelled by experiencing some of the afore-mentioned traps, but the gift of the heron was to bring me back to simple truths. I am created by a loving God to be who I am, not someone else; I am saved by this same God through Jesus Christ, who’s love redeems my brokenness and blesses me with the Spirit who makes me so much more than I can be on my own. It’s beautiful to behold any of God’s creatures who live with that kind of acceptance and grace.

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Hidden Figures Brings Us All into the Light

blogpic.hiddenfiguresmovieGo see the movie, Hidden Figures!

I was both inspired and disturbed as I watched this movie last weekend. It’s not difficult to understand the depth of structural and institutional racism that lingers in this country when only 60 years ago, Katherine Johnson had to run a half mile to find a “colored ladies” restroom at NASA; Dorothy Vaughan couldn’t access a computing book since it was in the “whites-only” section of the library; and Mary Jackson had to petition a judge to attend an engineering class only taught at a segregated white school. Neighborhoods were red-lined and schools were and continue to be under-resourced. In her blog, the Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD, writes, “This intentional under-education, miseducation, and constant changing of job qualifications to exclude African Americans—along with excluding black veterans from the GI Bill—was designed to build the white middle class at the expense of and on the plundered wealth of black folk.”

And whites today still wonder why there’s a Black Lives Matter movement when the racist attitudes behind the segregation so clearly portrayed in Hidden Figures is still manifest in some of our institutions. It’s hard for us as white people to admit that an equal playing field for people of color feels like oppression to those of us who are accustomed to preference and privilege. The importance of the movie, Hidden Figures, is that it so clearly portrays that access for and full use of the talents and intelligence of ALL Americans does not create fewer opportunities for others; on the contrary, it benefits all of us—it got us to the moon! It’s hard to let go of the zero-sum approach to equal access and economic success, but having these three powerful women working in NASA in the 1960’s was a boon to all Americans, indeed, all of humanity. Far from diminishing others, their lives and work created more opportunity for so many, not the least of whom of was John Glenn.

We can still support our societal structures and those who work in them (e.g. law enforcement) and also hold them accountable to the hard work of eliminating prejudice and racist beliefs that manifest themselves in unequal treatment (and too often, death) of persons of color. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson succeeded due to their brilliant minds, their tenacity in the face of discrimination, and the support of their families, church and community. We all need to continue to work for a country where their counterparts today find even more support through fully funded schools, safe neighborhoods, access to healthcare, and institutions that advocate and celebrate their contributions to society on an equal playing field with all citizens.

 

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Abiding with Jesus and Dr. King

blogpic MartinLutherKingJrA Sermon Preached for the 2nd Sunday After the Epiphany and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday based on John 1:29-42

“What are you looking for?” Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of John begins with a question—not an exorcism as in Mark, not a sermon as in Matthew, not in the Temple quoting Isaiah, as in Luke. Today we get a question that Jesus asks two of John’s disciples who have heard that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. “What are you looking for? Perhaps John wants us to be clear about our deepest needs before we encounter the Jesus he proclaims. 

Our culture will try to tell us that we need more stuff, a bigger house, more status at work, certainly more likes on Facebook, and more separation from those who are different from us. But Jesus confronts us with the deeper questions that get us beyond the superficialities of a consumer culture and an image of God as a cosmic Santa Claus and asks us, “what motivates you—not on the surface, but deep down in the core of your being?” If Jesus sat down next to you and asked you, as his disciple, “What are you looking for? What do you need?” What would you say?

Perhaps for some of us, it’s a larger sense of meaning, a bigger purpose or a deeper sense of being loved. Perhaps for others, it is strength sufficient for a difficult situation, healing from pain, comfort in our grief, relief in our loneliness, or guidance in a decision.

The two disciples, however, answer Jesus’ question with another question! “Where are you staying?” It sounds like they’re asking for Jesus’ hotel, or guest house.

But for John, their question is not just about directions and lodging. The disciples are really asking, “Where are you abiding? Where will you remain, where will you endure, where will you continue to be?” The Greek word that can be translated all of these ways (meno), is used no less than 44 times in the Gospel in the John. It’s a central theme that John introduces right away. Where can we dwell with you? How can we be with you, to receive what you have to offer? Where can we abide in the very presence of God? To the question, “what are you looking for?” the disciples answer, “to dwell with God by abiding with you, Jesus.”

And isn’t that what we all want? To dwell in God, to live in God through Jesus’ presence, in every breath, in every cell of our body, in our words, in our action in our hopes and in our dreams? So Jesus said to them, “Come and See. Come and be with me. Come and abide with me.” For to abide with Jesus is to belong God. To abide with Jesus is to be saved. To abide with Jesus is to be forgiven by the Lamb of God. To abide with Jesus is to experience a real and committed relationship that lasts for eternity.

When we abide in Jesus, we receive the meaning and purpose we desire. We can hear the guidance we need, receive the strength we seek, the comfort that we crave, and the love that nourishes our soul. For Jesus abides with God and God abides with him. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth--to bring us into that same intimate relationship Jesus shares with God. For John, Jesus came to remove all barriers from us having a deep, abiding relationship with God.

And like any relationship the more time we spend in that relationship, the deeper it becomes, the more intimate the conversation, the more revealing the love, the deeper the bond. In my devotional reading this week, I read this passage:"When you go to your place of prayer, don’t try to think too much or manufacture feelings or sensations. Don’t worry about what words you should say or what posture you should take. It’s not about you or what you do. Simply allow Love to look at you—and trust what God sees! God just keeps looking at you and loving you center to center." This is what John calls abiding in Jesus.

But our faith and relationship with Jesus doesn’t end there, with our own personal relationship with God in Christ—it’s where it begins. Abiding with Jesus is a relationship that also gets lived out in the world. For to abide in Jesus is to abide with all beings that God has created. John’s Gospel begins with these words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

That means everyone belongs, every person, every nation, every ethnic group. We all belong to God, even our enemies, which is why Jesus told us to love them. In First John, it says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.”

Tomorrow we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who spent his life and ministry holding us accountable to this truth, that everyone belongs. In a country founded on Christian principles, we have treated some of our citizens as if they don’t belong—as if they don’t belong to God and don’t belong to us, as fellow human beings, and sisters and brothers in Christ.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail and The Struggle that Changed a Nation, King wrote: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [humanity is] caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...This is the inter-related structure of reality.” Or we could say this is the inter-related structure of being created by the same God, abiding in relationship with God through the same Jesus Christ.

Today, Jesus also asks those who are oppressed, or disenfranchised the same question he asks us, “What are you looking for?” We could ask refugees and immigrants, people in the Black Lives Matter movement, poor rural whites and everyone who feels they don’t belong, “what are you seeking?” Like us, they are seeking meaning and purpose, love and comfort, strength and guidance; and they hope for what we assume: to be treated with justice and fairness by our institutions, to have equal opportunity, to belong as a full citizen. In an environment where divisions between us are exploited and used as the basis for hateful rhetoric and actions, how much more are we called by God to embody in our daily life, the unity we share with all people who have been created by the Word in the beginning, and are one with us abiding in Christ.

When we ground our identity, our well-being, our very life, in abiding with God in Christ Jesus, we do not need to over-identify with our own cultural group or class to feel safe and valued. On the contrary, we live from the security of our relationship with God and follow Jesus in embracing all people, and in advocating for policies that bring freedom and inclusion for all of God’s children.

As ones who abide with Christ, we attend to our individual relationship with God (the visual with this is that my right arm points straight up) and we live out this unity in just, open and equal relationships with all people whom God created (and my left arm moves horizontally across my right arm to form a cross). + This is the life Christ is looking for in us.

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