Sunday, February 23, 2014

Jesus and Lutheran cursing

Any Lutheran worth their salt just heard Jesus say a swear.  Two words that evoke gasps and sputters from theologians, pastors, Martin Luther and first year seminarians…Jesus said “good works.” 
For many protestant traditions, but especially Lutherans, the phrase “good works” is supposed to make us squirm uncomfortably. And if we are going to talk about “good works” we certainly are not supposed to let others see them.  The Lutheran tradition bold declares that we are saved by grace through faith apart from works.  It’s like a weighty bumper sticker that lifelong Lutherans rattle off – we are saved by grace through faith apart from works. This is the thrust of the reformation, the Spirit that carried Martin Luther and other major reformers of the church – they critiqued, protested, left and began again in communities under the banner of being saved by grace through faith apart from works.

Apart from works.

And Jesus just stepped right in it – with his liberating cry to all listening disciples, “Let your light shine before all that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.”  There is nothing about this sentence that I do not find problematic.  First of all, I was taught from an early age it is not my light, but God’s light shining through us.  Second, the call to let others see our good works or to even suggest that we ought to be going good works is problematic.  Third, glorify in one of those words I’m pretty sure only evangelicals are using these days and lastly, its women’s retreat weekend and we’re referring to God as “Father” which is a whole other session in itself. 

I warned you, Jesus said a swear.

There is some context that is helpful here.  Remember, we are in week two of Jesus’ sermon on the mount – last week we heard all the Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the hungry…we heard some of the more beautiful and memorable poetry in all of scripture last week.  Jesus beckons the suffering and horror of the earth and balances it with a sure promise to not only be present, but to bring transformation and new life. 

Jesus has laid out the vision of the Kingdom of heaven and now moves to describe those who are making way for the kingdom.  The speech pattern shifts as Jesus moves from referencing to direction naming…  “You are the salt of the earth”.  This is not, I will make you salty, not take my salt and run with it…Jesus is giving the new identity, the new way of living, “You are the salt of the earth, You are the light of the world”.  And the Greek here is emphatic and it is plural.  So through our limited English we can only here the word “You” I think a clearer rendering could be, YOU, all-ya’ll are the salt of the earth.  You, all-ya’ll are the light of the world. Not borrows of God’s light, but right there in and of your bodily and spiritual being you are salt…you are light.

And in that “you are…” directive is the salvific promise of Christ.  God’s great love for the world moves in ways that are meant to shake us up and awaken us to the movement of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  God does not desire for our lives to be so stale, tasteless and dark that we are complacent, boring or lost.  In the bold declaration of “You are salt and You are light” Jesus is beckoning us into the reality of the Beatitudes, God is the power in it all…and we get to be the seasoning and illuminating agents in the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is more than a bumper sticker slogan for Christianity…this is more than an aggravation over the phrasing of Jesus, and more than a pep rally for disciples of Jesus.

Many of you know the various and important functions of salt in our world, much better than I – we know it in our food, our bodies, our water and the list could easily go on.  And if this past week’s struggle with electricity has reminded of us of anything it is how comforting and important light is.  So, we can imagine, together, what Jesus is calling us to. 

How? How do we be salt? How do we live as light? And this is where the demand deepens and the tilt toward good works becomes center.  Jesus said it is all for the earth – for the natural world, we are called to be salt not because it will feel good or because it will set us on a good track with God.  We are salt…for the earth.  And we are light, not because light is always welcomed – its illuminating, even of those things we would really rather not illuminate, and we are light because the darkness is everywhere we look and we are light…for the world.

And we turn, finally, to the prophet Isaiah to put flesh and bones on the imagery Jesus uses.  The prophet tells of the living and fasting that God desires, which is so very different than the fasting of false piety or personal recompense…Isaiah says…

 6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke? 
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;

Loosen injustice, free the oppressed, share bread, shelter homeless, cover the naked and be present to your family – this is the description of the salt and light of Jesus, and it turns out it has absolutely nothing to do with us at all!

This is the nature of the kingdom of heaven, that we are liberated to do good works which flow out of our identity established in Jesus Christ.  And this is the nature of the kingdom heaven – which offers another way of living.  Its less of the pop slogan, “You choose for you” and more of the teachings of Isaiah and Jesus saying God has chosen you, go and share that gift for the sake of the world.

So, there it is – the job description of salt and light in the kingdom of heaven.  We can handle the chatter about good works because of our identity as already valuable and loved and empowered children of God. 

The mission of Holden Village is this “to welcome all people into the wilderness to be called, equipped and sent by God.” Three primary verbs move this mission statement – called, equipped and sent.  Verbs filled with hope, faith and action that do not allow us to get too comfortable in our current setting but are pointing us elsewhere from the very beginning.  It turns out the very mission of Holden, like the very teachings of Jesus liberate us from thinking it is about us anyway…being in this valley is about being sent back out and being salt and light in the kingdom of heaven are about being sent out to the earth and the world.

Good works, we are freed to do them, to the glory of God and for the sake of the world. 

You are the seasoning God has placed in this world at this time and in this place – already you, just as you are.  You are the light God ignites in the darkness, shining and stunning and illuminating for others – already you, just as you are.

Thanks be to God for establishing such a kingdom in our stale and darkened world.  May we be agents of life and light for others.  Amen. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Super Bowl and Contentment

Epiphany IV
Matthew 5: 1-11

You have just heard what is commonly referred to as “The Beatitudes”.  It is the beginning of a long sermon Jesus is giving to his disciples.  Jesus and the disciples have been with massive amounts of people for days of healings and teachings, and now it is time to pull away and re-group.  The isolation is reminiscent of camp counselor training at bible camp before the hordes of youth arrive.  Jesus takes the time with his disciples and reveals to them what following this way will mean for their lives.

Notice that in the beginning and towards the end of the Beatitudes there is a repeating phrase “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.  Literary buffs in our midst will recognize this inclusio as the framework that hold this piece of poetry together.  The context for all these blessings and for all the kinds of people mentioned in the Beatitudes are held in the inclusio “the kingdom of heaven”.  Kingdom is one of these words that does not speak into our immediate context, kingdom brings ideas of a set piece of land with borders, a land where one is in charge living high in a castle and there is one rule and many subjects under that rule.  Kingdom surely would have conjured ideas in the minds of the disciples that day on the mountain – they were looking for political upset, a new kingdom would have given them confidence in following Jesus as a way into victory, success and personal security.

It does not take long when glancing at the words inside the inclusio for disciples, then and now, to realize the kingdom of heaven is nothing like a worldly kingdom. 
The poor in spirit have the kingdom,
the persecuted for God’s sake inherit the kingdom.

There is something about today that cannot be avoided – I have never been one for tip-toeing around the elephant in the room, so I would like to point out the elephant standing on the gospel text today.  It is super bowl Sunday, and in a few hours the nation will be riveted to televisions sets watching commercials that cost, on average, $4 million dollars for a 30 second spot[i].  A stadium in New Jersey will be jammed packed with ticket buyers who collective spent, on averages $2000[ii] to be present for the super bowl.  No cheering for the meek or the poor in a sport that rallies for the most dominant, the strongest and fastest, no one with means will go hungry, with players making on average $1.9 million a season[iii] and spectators who have the means to do so will spend the day feasting and snacking and drinking in excess.

The kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God have met each other, face to face this day.

There is something satisfying to my self-righteous spirit in imagining this face off just like the beginning of the big game.  On one side we have the poor, meek, mourning and hungry – limping, leaning on each other, arms extended in forced humility and longing.  On the other side we have the adrenaline charged, beer chugging, voices screaming, money throwing side.  What’s up for grabs in the war of the kingdoms? Not the gaudy superbowl ring, rather they compete for the possession of those blessings promised in the Beatitudes. 

Who will win? Well, any self-righteous Christian will indigently laugh off the question, for the answer is clear.

Who will win? Well, the righteous one will gently shake their head, rejecting the premise of the question all together.

The blessings that Jesus speaks of as he begins the sermon on the mount, are not a commodity to be possessed or a prize to be won by someone and lost by someone else.  The Greek word used over and over here is makarios, and there is no perfect English translation.  We could get the general concept with English ideas like content, satisfied with, happy in a very grounded sense, that is the sentiment behind all the “blessed be”.  That way of life, that way of feeling and being comes through the relationship one has with God – these blessings are not a title to claim, being blessed by God is making room for God…filling the vacancies of our hearts and souls with the holy love of God and nothing else.

The NFL face off happening today is treacherous ground because it encourages us to fill up the emptiness that we feel with a whole lot of nothing: beer, competition, wealth, athletic prestige, all things bigger and better and stronger and more powerful.  Spending a life time, or a healthy part of your budget to invest in these ever failing gods will not fill the vacancies, and in their failure to do so the blessings are squandered too.  And of course, its just a little to easy to villinize the NFL and overlook the myriad of self-made gods I have created, or all the different ways we destructively pursue these false gods as if…as if that grounded-happiness, that satisfaction of the blessed be could be granted any other way.

There is no face off today between the kingdom of God and the NFL, I’ll have to quiet my self-righteousness somehow.  Remember, the kingdom of God does not have clear borders with powerful rulers and subjects – the kingdom of God is a moving ministry, a way of living that follows Jesus…and let’s look again at the beatitudes to see where Jesus would like those followers to hang out.

To be poor in spirit, disciples of Jesus are attending to the suffering of those around them.
To be one who mourns means to be close to the dying.
To be meek, one must choose humility over power.
To be hungry and thirsty one knows simplicity over excess.
To be merciful one is in nations, companies, communities that function on arrogance and so the merciful are given an opportunity to be merciful.
To be pure in heart one is close to God in every area of their daily lives.
To be peacemakers, one must stand on the front lines of war.
To be persecuted, one must be speaking for all these just mentioned and testifying to God’s love…loudly.

Jesus is painting a beautiful, clear picture saying this is relationship with God.  And because of Jesus’ life on this earth we are invited into this life to search for these blessings and carry them all over the world.  Into poor neighborhoods, through the village and campuses and workplaces and homes…and self-righteousness be quiet…even into football stadiums.

Transformation, such as the likes of the kingdom of God, comes slowly and quietly and powerfully.  The “Souper bowl of caring” (with soup-er spelt S-O-U-P-E-R) is a perfect example.  This ministry began slowly and quietly and powerfully with a Presbyterian youth group from South Carolina– they did not want to dismiss the craze of the superbowl out of hand, but be transformative vessels in the midst of it.  They asked their church to bring money or canned goods to their church on superbowl Sunday…that one youth group started a movement that is carried throughout the country.  Since its beginning in 1990 the organization has raised $90 million for soup kitchens and food banks.   

Bono is challenging the superbowl this year too.  He asked Bank of America to sponsor a commercial where they will premiere a song, “Invisible” – during the commercial the 100 million viewers will be prompted to buy the song on itunes and proceeds will go to Bono’s organization RED which fights to eradicate malaria and tuberculosis in Africa.

None of it is perfect, but all of it transformative.

So, cheer your hearts out this afternoon and look around you and look within so that we all may be attentive to the Spirit who will carry us into the places of the Beatitudes.  Remember the false, empty gods who will fail, and the one and true God who promises blessings such as this…

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for they are the sad and depressed, those who feel lonely and outcast, whose illnesses cannot be easily measured…
Blessed are the poor in spirit for they need God and God will not leave them solitary.

Blessed are those who mourn: for they know loss so deep that grief is their constant companion
Blessed are those who mourn for they need comfort and companionship and God will not leave them.

Blessed are the meek: for they are looked over and bullied
            Blessed are the meek for they will be noticed and loved and inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness:  those not so provided for that provision becomes an entitlement, those who physically work and long for the ways of God upon the earth
            Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled with the bread from heaven and drink from the cup of salvation.

Blessed are the merciful: for they give and rarely receive,
            Blessed are the merciful for God will return all they have given away for Love’s sake.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see their God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for peace is never easy, it is slow and ambiguous.
            Blessed are the peacemakers for they will inherit God’s bounty.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: those who give something up, those who stand in harm’s way for the sake of another, those who give voice for the meek, food for the hungry, hugs for the grieving, mercy to the evil ones, love to those who hate, peace to the declarers of war.

            Blessed are you for you are in need of God, for there is room for your life for the love of another, for the work of Jesus’ ministry…blessed are you.


[i] International Business Times,
[iii] Business week