Thursday, July 27, 2017

Beatitudes: Happy/Blessed all over the place

I was invited to speak on one of the Eight Beatitudes today: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." As I thought the Beatitudes were a special revelation from Jesus most of my life, I assumed this was one of the tickets to get into heaven.

The Greek word, dioko, means to pursue or to run away from. It implies persecution and is used several times by Jesus in Matthew's Gospel. The Lord is clear that His followers will be 'pursued, harassed or persecuted' because the world is at odds with Jesus. There are two different kingdoms in conflict.

The Greek word, dikaiosyne, means to be in the right relationship or in the proper mode of being. It can also mean to be just or do right, but it connotes right standing with God. This is the covenant relationship with requires us to trust God and be loyal to Him. In other words, its about our relationship, not my morality.

Jesus says that if we love God, trust God and are faithful to God we are truly blessed. The blessing/happiness of those who are persecuted for ordering their lives in right relationship with God stems from the realization of what happens in right relationship with God--one inherits the kingdom of heaven. (this is a circumlocution for kingdom of God, Matthew avoiding the use of the word God in keeping with the pious practice of many Jews as a sign of respect. It does not mean going to heaven.) To be in God's kingdom is to enjoy the abundance of shalom, the peace which surpasses human understanding, where all will be well. When God is in charge things will be much better. Of course, the Kingdom has not yet been completely established, so in the mean time the Enemy still reigns. Jesus is inviting us to look beyond the current "pressing" of opposition to God. The apostle Paul sums it up in his letter to the Romans when he declares that the sufferings of the present are as nothing compared to the glory to be revealed. If we  suffer for God's sake it is a blessing because it assures us that we are in right relationship with God and stand to enjoy life with God to the ages of ages.

In saying this, Jesus speaking like a Jew. If I had been more attuned to this years ago I would have understood the Eight Beatitudes better. There are many more than eight! Matthew actually has four other beatitudes:
11:16 "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
13:16 "But your eyes are blessed because they see and your ears because they hear." (prophets and saints longed to see and hear Messiah)
16:17 "You are blessed Simon bar Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven."
24:46 "Blessed is that slave whom the Master finds at work when he comes."
Jesus used this expression because blessing is a major theme in the Jewish Bible. It occurs thirty five times in Genesis alone. God blesses, people bless and some people are called blessed. It is a constituent part of the theological understanding of the way God works in the world.

In my search, it appears Numbers 24 contains the first beatitude, in the Balaam story. The pagan prophet, hired to curse Israel, is warned by God that this people is blessed and cannot be cursed. So Balaam, inspired by the spirit of God faces Israel and makes an oracle. Comparing the people to a mighty lion, he concludes with these words, "blessed are they who bless you and accursed they who curse you." (which echoes God's promise to Abraham)

While many references to blessing and being blessed following Balaam, the next beatitude occurs in Job 5:17 ("blessed is the man whom God corrects") However, it is in the collection of Psalms that we begin to see numerous beatitudes similar to Jesus' usage.

Psalm 1:1 ''how blessed" the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand... with sinners, or sit... with scoffers"
2:2 "Blessed are those who take refuge in Him" [God]
32:1, 2  "Blessed are those who are forgiven,... blessed are those God does not punish for wrongdoing
33:12 "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord."
34:8 "Blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him." 
41:1 "Blessed is the one who treats the poor properly."
84:4 "Blessed are those who live in your temple and praise you continually."
84:5, 12 "blessed are those who find their strength in you...blessed are those who trust you."
89:15 "Blessed are they who worship You Lord"
94:12 "Blessed is the one whom You instruct Lord.
106:3 "Blessed are those who promote justice and always do what is right."
112:1 "Blessed is the one who obeys the Lord and takes great delight in keeping His commands."
119:1,2 "Blessed are those who observe His rules and seek Him with all their heart."
128:2 "Blessed is every one of the Lord's loyal followers, each one who keeps His commands."
(there are some others, and several which are borderline to our purposes, but this illustrates the point)

In addition, Wisdom Literature contains numerous Beatitudes
Proverbs 3:13 "Blessed is the one who finds wisdom and obtains understanding."
8:32, 34 Wisdom speaks to her children, "Blessed are those who listen to me...blessed is the one who listens to me."
28:14 "Blessed is the one who is always cautious."
29:18 "the one who keeps the law, blessed is he." (there are several other examples in psalms and proverbs of this reversed ordering)

There are beatitudes in the Prophets as well.
Is 30:18 "...all who wait for Him in faith will be blessed."
56:2 "Blessed is the man who does this." (keeps Sabbath)
Daniel 12:12 "Blessed is the one who waits..." (for apocalyptic judgment)

Luke and John record numerous Beatitudes of Jesus. In Luke 11:28, when someone says Mary is blessed to have Jesus as a son, He replies, "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it" John 13:17 Jesus said, "If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do it," and more famously 20:29 where Jesus says to Thomas, "Blessed are those who have not seen yet believed!"

The first time I stumbled across the "other beatitudes" was in a Book of Revelation class I taught. One commentator pointed out the repetition of seven in the book, not simply the number but groups of seven. This is a reminder of the complexity of many books and the intentional structuring.
1:3 Blessed is the one who reads the prophecy... blessed are those who hear and obey.
14:13 "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord."
16:15 "Blessed is the one who stays alert."
19:9 "Blessed are those invited to the Banquet of the Lamb."
20:6 "Blessed and holy is the one who takes part in the first resurrection."
22:7 "Blessed is the one who keeps the prophecy expressed in this book."
22:14 "Blessed are those who wash their robes."

The Blessed (or happy) are in right relationship with God. They trust God and entrust themselves to His care. The look to Him for their protection and salvation. They are also blessed because they worship, listen, obey and walk in His ways. Faith without faithfulness is dead. If we hear the Eight Beatitudes in the wider context of dozens of other biblical beatitudes, it is probable that Jesus is not doing a new thing here (except as He identifies Himself as the core of the relationship with God). It is easy to get distracted by many things. I believe meditating on the Bible's beatitudes provides us a corrective to the false beatitudes proclaimed by the world, the flesh and the devil.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Fields and souls

today's homily [ Lectionary Isaiah 44:6-8; Ps 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43]
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 is part of a wider collection of parables, many of them rural farm stories. The images, taken from the peasant's daily life, shed light on the mystery of God's rule. Jesus implies that God created a good world but an enemy's hand has introduced evil. We can assume that Satan is the "evil one." This is another example of the Two Kingdoms theology. Humans align with the competing Kings, God or Satan.

[It is important to understand "Kingdom of Heaven" does not mean heaven. Matthew, the good Jew, is using a circumlocution ("round about way of saying") to avoid speak the holy name God. So heaven is a respectful reference to God. Kingdom is not an area or place, it is the reign, those under the authority of the King. So, the first reference may be paraphrased, "This is how God is running His creation." In other words, Jesus is explaining how the world we live in works. The parable, therefore, is an illustration.]

The obvious solution, pull up the weeds, is ruled out as. In the Middle East, some weeds initially look like wheat, however, the agricultural image really illustrates the more complex human reality. St. Augustine reminds us that humans, unlike seeds, can change. Jesus' story describes the world, full of good and bad, waiting for the final judgment. In apocalyptic theology that is called "the harvest." Until then, God bides His time, giving us space to choose. However, such personal choices are both corporate and individual. 'I decide' and 'we decide' for or against God.

The bad seed is planted while people slept. The field is the entire society, oblivious to the false values, false beliefs and sinful passions which turn her from God. Later interpretation focused on the individual soul as the field, the individual can be unaware of the dangerous thoughts and desires at work within himself or herself. The fourth century bishop Chromatius calls this the sleep of infidelity. Good seed--elsewhere called the Word of God--is planted in our hearts. Our destiny is to be children of God. But the enemy sows seed of bad thoughts which take root while we are inattentive--asleep. The mixture of good and bad, in society and in each of us, produces mixed results. The spiritual discipline of watchfulness, guarding the mind from bad thoughts and the heart from evil passions, is impossible to those who sleep. As more bad seeds take root and grow, it crowds out the good seed. Jesus calls us to wakefulness: trusting Him in a disciple's life of prayer, Scripture and service. The church is meant to be faithful; a space for holy thoughts and godly desires which open us to the Holy Spirit so the Word can take root and grow. Too often, we are seduced by the lie that small things are no big deal. "God understands," we console ourselves.  However, tiny seeds become big weeds, small thoughts and little desires grow into large sinful behaviors. We do well to remember that a plug which is 1/2 inch from the socket is as disconnected as one which is a hundred miles away.

We should hear Romans 8 in this context. All creation groans--the world, a sad mix of wheat and weeds, longs to be redeemed. Each of us and all of us share in the longing for deliverance. In one sense, it is too late for us, the seeds long planted are grown and continue to spread; we must stand firm and await the harvest. The Good News, Jesus says, is some day God will come to judge the living and the dead, separating out the weeds from the wheat. The Bad News is, some day God will come to judge, and we have been willing to slumber away while the weeds are sown and grown within us. The unspoken message? Repent! Individually and corporately, we can choose to return to the Lord. This is our choice and it is our message to the world!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Funeral Message for Sharon

Sharon Sumrall was one of those people who everyone loves. Her husband and kids are so loving and a joy to be with. Watching with them as she died I was aware that the family was an icon of "happy death," she breathed her last covered in love. Preaching at a close friends funeral is especially poignant and Sharon was a sweet and good friend. Rest in Peace dear!

[Readings Psalm 27 and The Book of Revelation 7:9-17]

We gather today to praise God for the gift of life and the hope of eternal life. We have seen, once again, death's evil power, we feel loss and sadness; yet we gather to declare our trust in God's mercy-faithfulness. In Jesus, the Father reveals His love. In the incarnation, God became Man to share our lives. In the cross, the Creator redeems the worst of His creation as Jesus dies with us and for us. In the resurrection the Father declares that death is temporary and life is forever. The Holy Spirit gives us hope as we mourn this loss.

Let us be clear, it is not selfish to miss her. It is not selfish to be with people we love. It is a godly desire to be together. Jesus wants to be with us, that is His heart's desire. The Cross of Jesus is the revelation of His broken heart. To use human language, our Lord is sad and misses us when we leave Him. So if you are sad and wish she were here, it is okay. However, there is more....

Sharon's family picked today's readings. The reading from Revelation 7 is especially appropriate because Sharon was very active in church. She worshipped here, now she worships there, with that huge congregation before the throne, crying out, "Salvation belongs to our God  and to the Lamb!" She is purified by the blood of the Lamb and clothed in white. She has passed through her great ordeal into the presence of God. Jesus, the Shepherd, takes her to the waters of life. Jesus wipes away her every tear. She has become the person God always intended her to be. She is now even more wonderful and beautiful and amazing!

We are not, yet. Our tears flow. Like Jesus, we weep at the tomb. We await that day when God's Kingdom comes---we wait for the day when sin and death are no more, when tears and sadness are no more, when strife and conflict are no more. We await the day when all of heaven and earth are perfected in love and worship.

If Revelation 7 reveals heavenly worship, Psalm 27 reminds us that we still pray on earth. Like all psalms, it is a human prayer to God, yet also a Divine Word of revelation. "The Lord is my light, my help, my strength... Whom should I fear or dread?" Yes, we are surrounded by the Enemy and yes we are threatened on all sides. Yet, the one who seeks the presence of the Lord is victorious even in apparent defeat. The one who seeks His face will never be abandoned, even if they appear alone. Salvation, healing, victory, abundance---all this and more. We are not spared the pain of life, but even in the pain we are victors. Things do not always work out as we hoped, but God redeems even the worst things. The Lord is always with us. The more we love, trust and faithfully obey Him, the more His power is unleashed in us.

Sharon was a good person, but understand, that is not why she is with God. Heaven is not a reward for being good. Heaven is a relationship. Sharon is with God because she responded to Him. She said "Yes, I love you, too," and she lived out that yes as one of His people. Jesus is very clear, many are called, but few respond. God gives us free will. No one is forced into heaven. No one is made to be part of the church. The Good News is everyone who does responds by loving Him in the community of believers will be there. But God respects our freedom--if we aren't interested in being part of His people, He lets us reject Him, forever. But Jesus wants you to know--He wants all of us to be part of His holy people. Sharon has completed her earthly journey. We haven't. The Good Shepherd calls you. Jesus wants to wipe away some of those tears. Jesus says, "Each day, turn to Me, trust Me, join my Kingdom people and follow me." Sharon would tell you, "Just do it!"

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Little Ones in Mission

Matthew 10:40-42

Matthew 10 has three major themes. It begins: "He called to Him twelve disciples and He gave them authority to cast out demons and heal the sick." Then: "He sent them out to the lost sheep, doing mighty works and proclaiming the Good News." But, Jesus warns: "Some will accept you, bless them. Others will curse you, warn them. Some will harm and kill you, do not fear them. Jesus spends much time talking about the level of hatred we will face."

For most 20th Century Christians, "authority and mission" were NOT part of the church experience. We went to church, gave money, said some prayers, and tried to be good. Faith was often a private affair, and no one hated us for loving Jesus. Most everyone went to church even if few of us sought a deep relationship with God.

This morning less than 15% of Americans are in church.* Society is secular. Many mock belief in God and open hostility toward Jesus and the Christian Church is considered progressive. The conflict between the World and Jesus intensifies, so today His words have a special poignancy! However, in this hostile environment the desire for real union with the Holy Three is also increasing.

Reading Scripture, I sometimes feel like a character in the Wizard of Oz. Evil is real and scary. I long for a better place. God keeps saying, "you already have the knowledge, the love and the courage you need, just believe!" You already have the ruby red slippers to take you home, just believe.

Can it be that there is in each of us, the power and authority to preach and teach, heal and exorcise? Is it possible that the Holy Spirit of God has really consecrated us for mission? Jesus believes it so we must believe His amazing words. "Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me and whoever welcomes me, welcomes him who sent me." Jesus says, "You are me in the world! You are one with God! This is not for private enjoyment but public mission. We carry His life into a sick and dying world!

In Matthew's Gospel Jesus uses the term "little ones" to describe this intimate union. I John uses "Teknion" (little children). Both words mean we share in the life of Jesus as God's sons and daughters. Jesus says we are His beloved children, but we are afflicted with "orphan spirit."** Many of us have abandonment issues. The "orphan spirit" blocks our heart from receiving the Good News that God is our Father and we are His children. The "orphan spirit" lies to us that we are on our own and to trust no one.

The only way to combat the doubts generated by world, flesh and demonic is to declare our faith that we are God's children now and to go forth confident of the power and authority within us. As we speak our faith and live our faith the holy God fire burns stronger and the healing light of Jesus flows out of us more brightly. At such moments we are the church God wants us to be, and no enemy of God can ever harm us.

*I postulate this based on research indicates that about 17% of Americans were in church each Sunday ten years ago, and about forty percent were active. That has not increased and during the summer attendance plummets.

**in one of those Holy Spirit moments, our OSL leader came into my office as I writing about "child of God" and shared with me her reading on the orphan spirit and how it keeps people from believing that they are children of God. Thankful for that insight into unbelief and the struggle we have hearing that we are God's children now, with more to be revealed in the Kingdom.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Psalm 102

Psalm 102 (Jewish Study Bible)
This is a psalm about the devastation caused by the destruction of Jerusalem. The Jewish faith was a "we" faith, corporate and personal. The holy city was at her core and the destruction of Jerusalem, loss of king and temple, dispersion of many, all of these weighed heavily on the psalm writer.

'O Lord, hear my prayer; let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me in my time of trouble; turn your ear to me; when I cry answer me speedily.'

God inspires the Bible, which includes so many 'dark' passages. God seems to be saying that the struggle is real and faith does not preserve us from trouble. Hope and trust are tried in the fire of loss and destruction, pain and abandonment. The author paints vividly the utter pain:
my bones are charred
my body stricken
too wasted to eat
vehement groaning
I lie awake
my enemies revile me
I have eaten ashes
My days are like a shadow
I wither

The psalmist paints a glum picture indeed, and all of us experience similar pain, either in our own lives or vicariously in the lives of others. Certainly, there are times when the horrors overwhelm us.
We may feel tempted to despair, to throw our hands up and view it all as a cruel joke. Yet, the question echoes within us if we dare to think it through, "Why are such prayers in the Bible? What is God saying to us and through us?" For me, it is a proof that God takes the life we live very, very seriously. God does not ignore the darkness and struggle. Everyone who belongs to Him is not always covered with laughter and blessings. It is not always smooth sailing.

Yet light shines in darkness. I can reject the doubt and fear, I can ignore my circumstances (however bleak) and embrace God on His terms. I can declare His faithfulness

You, Lord, are enthroned forever...You will surely arise and take pity on Zion.
He looks down...the Lord beholds the release.

Yes, Lord, I believe. Life defeats death. Joy in the midst of sorrow, hope to face loss. I believe, because you are, and we are never alone. You hear, you know, you save.

The closing words, introduced by"everything perishes, you are forever,' recalls the prayer of St. Teresa I blogged on a few weeks ago. A reminder that all things are temporary except God. And because God is God, the psalmist, even in the pain, utters this request to conclude the psalm:

May the children of Your servants dwell securely and their offspring endure in Your presence.

A good prayer: it's not about me, but focuses on my kids and your kids. A prayer that trusts in "some day" and God's (slow to us) faithfulness and salvation. A prayer that takes me out of me and reminds me of us. Personal, yet corporate.

We prayed this psalm today, aware of our own losses, aware of the losses of others, and we embrace the faith, hope and love which God generates by His faithful mercy kindness. amen

Thursday, June 29, 2017

God's Wrath

The daily readings were interrupted by the special feast today commemorating St. Peter and St. Paul. However, my practice is to pray over the weekly reading cycle regardless, so I read 1 Samuel 8. I'm glad I did as it matched well with our Bible study today.

Samuel the little boy with the vision of chapter 3 is old (3:19 "Samuel grew up," very little narrative about growing up). He names his sons as judges, but as is often the case, the son is incapable of living up to the father. His sons are interested in personal wealth and gain. Like his mentor, Samuel is a failed father. The elders of Israel come to him and describe the situation. "You are old and your sons are not suitable, so we want a king, so we can be like everyone else." Samuel is deeply hurt and upset, going to the Lord in prayer. God tells him, "They did not reject you, they reject me." So God tells Samuel to go along with their request and give them what they ask. However, He does tell Samuel to explain what being like every else will mean. Samuel enumerates the various demands a monarchy makes on people. The verb "to take" occurs over and over. Kings take much more than they give. God says that He will allow the people to choose, but He will not save them from the choice. In my mind, this is the wrath of God.

We live in a culture which is ruled by personal wants and desires. Companies are learning to market and produce to individuals. Custom made products designed and created based on personal preferences and choices. In fact, the power to decide has dramatically impacted many of our social institutions and has even changed how people determined their own identities. Self-identification ("I am what I decide that I am!") is very much the spirit of the age.

I would argue that the wrath of God is best understood as the Divine decision to say, "okay, have it your way." Israel wants to be like everyone else. They want access to a visible, human king. They reject the invisible God. God provides but Israel doubts. All sin springs forth from a seed of doubt ("Can God be trusted?") and a choice of willfulness ("I will decide"). We want what we want they declare, ignoring all advice to the contrary.

The book of kings ends in exile. The king the people wanted has been dethroned by an enemy. Israel is just like her neighbors. The Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men and women are different. We are seduced by the world. We are seduced by the desire to call the shots. We are seduced by the power God gives us to reject Him and have it our way. You and I also can choose. Will it be God or do we want to be like everyone else? God's wrath is His willingness to let us choose.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Homily for a Memorial Service June 24, 2017

Memorial Service

Whom do we gather to remember this day? It is tempting to say the deceased, but I suggest that there is Another to whom we should turn the Holy Three God.

Our Creator is the Father-God of memory.  Genesis 9:15 says that God promises to remember His covenant with the earth. In Exodus 2 we read that God sees the pain of Israel, hears their cries, remembers His covenant and comes down to save. Psalm 105 and 111 both declare that the Lord remembers His covenant forever.

What is God’s covenant with us? The Father declares, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” As a member of God’s people, we die knowing that even in death God remembers us--this gives us peace in the midst of sadness and loss.

Human memory is a two edged sword, it can make us smile and laugh, but sometimes that sharpens the pain of loss. Memories remind us, but can never restore our lost ones. To "live on" in the memories of others is a shadowy, incomplete existence. But when God remembers we truly live. We die with Jesus and we will live again. So we gather in Memorial Services to remember this Good News.

In the first reading (Philippians 4:4-7) today, Paul writes from a Roman prison, the threat of death hangs over him. Yet the letter is full of joy. He rejoices because he trusts God and he exhorts us ‘to rejoice in the Lord always’ as well. Joy is the fruit of trust and hope. Joy does not depend on our circumstances. We are not happy that our loved ones die, but even in sadness there can be joy. To invite mourners to rejoice is a cruel thing, unless there is good reason. We do have good reason for God is faithful.

Psalm 23, an ancient prayer, expresses this faithfulness eloquently. Even in the dark valley of death we do not fear, for God the Shepherd is always with us. How many millions have drawn strength from this psalm, facing their own dark valleys? It is the same faith which Paul gives witness to in 2 Corinthians 4:13-17. We do not lose heart, he says, even if our physical body wastes away and dies, because we believe that the one who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us also.

It is that same Jesus, the one who rose from the dead, who provides us the greatest cause for comfort, peace and even joy today (John 14:1-6). “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” says Jesus, the night before His crucifixion, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust God. Trust Me.” I have never been crucified but I don’t need to be to know it is a horrible way to die. Yet, Jesus, facing such torture and death, turns instead to comfort us. “Do not fear, do not be troubled, just trust. Trust me because only I can bring you to God. Trust Me.”

This is what we gather to remember. We remember Jesus, who is God Incarnate, is the way and that each of us can choose to be on the way. We remember God is faithful, a Good Shepherd who is always there. We remember these sacred words, “do not be troubled, just trust, do not be troubled, rejoice, do not be troubled, I am the way to God.” Such remembering is good, especially on such a day as this….