Archive for February, 2011

Don’t worry, be happy?

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Matthew 6:24-34
February 27, 2011
Steve Hammond

So who was the audience that Jesus was talking to in today’s story? It’s one thing to say don’t be so caught up in your job description when you have a job, and quite another when you have been on long term unemployment. It’s one thing to say to folk who have a closet full of clothes they should not be so concerned about the latest style of shoes, and another to folk who can’t afford the clothes down and the Goodwill Resale shop, or even afford to get there. Worrying can do bad things to us, not matter our economic realities, but some of the things folk worry about are more understandable than others. And money is one of the things we worry about a lot, no matter how much or little we have.

It’s probably safe to assume it was a mixed group that heard Jesus say things like these. Some of the folk in the crowds would be the wealthy and powerful, others would be their slaves. And it’s also probably safe to assume that the folk who had the least were willing to take Jesus the most seriously about these things. In fact, there is a long history of the rich using this passage to tell the poor they should be content with what they have, while the rich are going crazy accumulating more themselves, often at the expense of the poor.

What did I hear the other day? The economic disparity in the United States in greater than in Egypt. That is a smaller percentage in the U.S. controls a larger share of the wealth in this country than in Egypt. And they took to the streets.

Your situation in life is going to influence how you hear what Jesus says. It seems the best we can do with today’s is imagine he’s talking to us, rich, poor, or somewhere in between, and not tell others how they need to hear this passage.

The United States is the most powerful nation in the world. The nation that proclaims itself the most Christian. But the politics of fear controls us. We say in ‘God we trust’ but we are armed personally and nationally to the teeth. Our defense budget may well be greater than the defense budgets of all the other nations in the world combined. We have more than 200 million guns in a country of 300 million people. That’s more guns than adults. The people who live in the safest neighborhoods have the most expensive security systems.

There is a happiness index that asks people around the world how happy they are. The U.S. came in 17th, because we worry about so many things. We have all these things, but it doesn’t make us happy because so many of us are still convinced we don’t have enough.

Jesus is showing us the trap. Fear, whether your are rich or poor, robs us of the abundant life, the real kind of life God wants for us. And it can happen so easily.

Do any of you listen to Car Talk? A woman called in a few weeks back to talk about her 20 something son who had worked long and hard so he could buy his first car. He saved up enough money. He looked in Consumer Reports before he went shopping and found a great car at a good price. He was so excited about this car he had worked so hard for until his older brother saw it and made the comment that ruined the whole thing for his younger brother, “It’s great for a chick car.” The mother was calling in to see if something could be done to dechikify the car so her son would feel good about driving it again.

I must admit that was the first time I had heard the concept ‘chick car.’ I know about muscle cars, and the desire many have to have nicer cars than their neighbors or relatives do. Now this kid was worrying about what everybody thought of him driving a chick car, instead of feeling good about all the work he had done to buy it.

Jesus knew we worry about so many things. Whether those fears are real or imagined, or even seem silly to us. They suck the life out of us. And the truth is that some fears are more real than others. It is a more fearful thing to not know how you are going to get to the doctor or pay for the visit, than drive there in a chick car. And it’s even a more fearful thing to learn, however you get to the doctor, that you are a lot sicker than you thought you were, and it’s going to cost you a lot more than you ever imagined.

It doesn’t simply help, though, to try to remember some people are worse off than we are, although it doesn’t hurt to keep that in mind. How bad off others have it doesn’t help you sleep at night whether you are worried about people making fun of your clothes the next day at school, or what you are going to do when the factory closes next month. Jesus didn’t say just look and see that others are worse off than you. What he did say is look and see that God is with you.

It’s about trust. Jesus is asking us where are we placing our trust. In our bank accounts? Our social status? How our peers view us? Or in God?

Jesus was convinced that trust in God enables us to figure out how we can find more life for ourselves and others, no matter our economic situation. It’s trust in God and God’s ways that frees us to seek God’s Realm, or God’s culture, as I like to think about it. What if, for example, that kid could not worry so much about driving a chick car, but using that car not only to get himself to where he wants to go, but take some folk to the doctor, or loan it to someone who needs it for the day? What if his car could help relieve some worry others were feeling and he thought about that more than what his brother thought about his car? Even if you are worried about driving a chick car, you still have done something God wants you to do. That’s got to count for something.

Jesus says that if we seek the culture of God we will receive the things we need. I don’t think Jesus is talking magic, though miracle is always appreciated. And it is abundantly clear that plenty of people aren’t getting what they need, no matter how faithful they are. But I think he is assuming that the more of us who are seeking to make God’s culture a reality in our lives, the more we will receive from each other. Working for peace, for example, might save all kinds of people the heartache of war somewhere else. And in the meantime, we learn to live more peacefully and be known as the children or God. (That’s in the beatitudes).

I heard someone on the radio the other day talking about the time he spends in Haiti. He is there a lot and agonizes over the pace of the rebuilding there. But he also agonizes over the fact that so many people are so very hungry. And what gets hard is when some child comes to him asking for food. He said if you give one kid food, suddenly there are 20 hungry kids with their hands stretched out. Sometimes he just has to walk away. But the other day he decided to give his food to the kid who asked. And sure enough, there was a whole group. And he just handed out what he had until it was gone. Do you know what the kids did who got the food? They shared it with the ones who didn’t get any. Even though life is hard for them, they understand what Jesus is saying here.

We all would do well by seeking to live God’s ways, to seek God’s culture above all things. But this doesn’t work if it is simply me and Jesus, it has to be us and Jesus. That’s a hard message for U.S. Christians. We want everything to be about the individual, including our salvation. But Jesus had a much different view of things. Following him leads us not only to God, but to each other. We find that life Jesus has for us with and because of each other. It’s not only our faith that saves us, but the faith of others.

Jesus says there are enough worries for today without getting caught up in the worries of tomorrow. Or as one person once said to me, “We don’t need to borrow worry.” That’s good advice no matter what we are worrying about, no matter how hard or relatively easy our situation really is. There will always be stuff to worry about. But the realm of God is still waiting to be discovered, no matter what is going on in our lives.

Seeking the culture of God first, making God’s realm more of a priority than what we are worrying about; that’s the challenge of faith Jesus presents to us. If God knows about the sparrow that falls from the sky, do you have the faith that God knows what’s going on with you? Jesus is convinced that all of our worrying is not going to do us the good that seeking God’s culture, God’s ways can.

Jesus starts it off by reminding us that we can’t serve two masters, like God and money. One is going to demand our allegiance over the other. We have to make a choice. But, Jesus shows us, money doesn’t love us. Worry doesn’t love us. Cars and houses and clothes don’t love us. People who care about those things don’t love us, they love our things.

Jesus didn’t promise an end to our worries. But he promised us God’s love and God’s presence. And he also promised he would do his best make a new community out of us where God’s culture would turn our hearts toward each other in times good and bad. He promised us a new way of seeing the world, each other, ourselves, and God. The way of God’s Realm doesn’t put an end to our worries. But when God’s Realm becomes more important that what we own, or wear, or worry about, we get a new perspective that puts things in their proper place. We find God, and we find each other.

*****************************
At the close of services that talk about worry, sometimes people will do a ritual like write their worries on a piece of paper and burn them or somehow find a symbolic way to trust those worries to God. That might be helpful. But it would also be helpful to think about what you need and to figure what you need to ask for. Not just ask God, but ask us. We may be able to help. Maybe not. But we can walk this journey together. What does it say in the Book of James, “You don’t have because you don’t ask.” The people that seem to take that the most seriously are professional fund-raisers.

Then we can also think about what we are willing to offer to help someone with whatever they are worrying about. Asking. Giving. Trusting. Suddenly we find ourselves seeking God’s Realm first.

The Slippery Slope of Radical Love

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Matthew 5:38-48
February 20, 2011
Mary Hammond

I was shocked and yet, sadly, not surprised as I looked for hymns this week on the theme of “loving our enemies.” There are lots of hymns on Christian unity, Christian community, the Church, Peace, and Justice, but hymns that blatantly reference loving our enemies are hard to come by. This is significant, because our music so deeply reflects our beliefs, and our beliefs so often get translated into song. What if the Church had a popular hymn with a chorus affirming Jesus’ command to love our enemies? What if congregations all over the United States sang it as much as they sing “Amazing Grace”?

To some in the contemporary church, “loving our enemies” is seen as impractical and unrealistic, fostering a “slippery slope” mentality that leads to an anything-goes, soft-on-sin liberalism. Within the political discourse, “loving our enemies” is anathema. How could any nation build their foreign policy on such a seditious, unpatriotic concept? Doesn’t might make right? Loving our enemies would be utter foolishness to the State. And yet, as the Apostle Paul proclaimed in I Corinthians 1:27-28, “God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and God chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the powerful. God chose what the world looks down on and despises and thinks is nothing, in order to destroy what the world thinks is important.”

As Christians, we are prone to soften Matthew 5:38-48 for a host of reasons. Reason #1, loving our enemies isn’t for wimps. When we are wronged, we are violated, and injustice is done. Our gut instinct is nearly always retribution or revenge, or at least holding a grudge. We don’t always know how to best respond or how to heal. Reason #2, many of us don’t have a clue as to what Jesus’ words really meant in the first century context of the Roman Empire’s wide reach. From a different cultural context and a different time, they are foreign to us. Reason #3, Because of Reason #2, we’ve either ignored Jesus’ words, softened them, or turned them into a counter-productive call to passivity.

Let’s begin by looking at the three examples Jesus gives. Each illustrates the same principle. Each reflects a real life situation often faced by the oppressed, who comprised the bulk of Jesus’ first century audience. They lived in a cultural context where honor and shame were important social constructs with important, unwritten rules of conduct. There are still cultures like this today; we just aren’t one of them.

In first century Israel, slapping a slave with the back of the hand on the right cheek is a common means for a master to assert his status and power over that person. If the slave then “turns the other cheek,” the master faces untenable options: to back down, to slap the slave with the palm of the hand, or to use the left hand. Any of these three options is considered shameful and causes the master to lose face. By turning the other cheek, the slave nonviolently affirms his or her own dignity, creatively responding to the master’s offense.

The second example makes the same point. A man is dirt poor and in debt, down to the tail end of his wardrobe. His coat provides the only warmth and protection he has on the streets at night. According to Hebrew law (see Exodus 22:26-27), anyone who sues a person for their coat is required to return it each night for their protection. So, if someone is sued for their shirt and offers their coat as well, the debtor’s nakedness is thus exposed. In ancient society, it is not the naked person who is shamed, but the one who looks upon that nakedness. A little different than in the United States today! Again, the powerful is put in his place by the powerless through creative nonviolent response.

Finally, a citizen is required to carry a soldier’s pack one mile. This is allowable under Roman law. A soldier’s pack can easily weight 75 pounds, so it can be a heavy load. Any soldier can require this; any citizen so compelled is expected to abandon whatever they are doing at the moment and carry the follow the soldier’s orders. But to voluntarily carry that load an additional mile can get the soldier in trouble if his superiors find out. Again, the underdog turns the tables on the one wielding power, shaming the one who makes this demand.

During the past few weeks, we have witnessed courageous acts of creative nonviolence in many middle eastern and northern African nations. Thousands, likely even millions of nonviolent protesters have assembled to press repressive regimes for democratic reforms. When nonviolence has been met with violence, the brutality of these regimes has been unmasked for the whole world to see. Some dictators have backed off, promising protection for nonviolent protesters and reforms. Others are threatening even greater repression. The story of these uprisings continues to be written day by day.

Nonviolence is not a magic formula. It is costly. Creative nonviolence involves great risk, but there is greater risk to the human spirit and the human project in returning evil for evil. As Martin Luther King, Jr., put it so elegantly, “We must learn to live together as neighbors or we will perish together as fools.”

The ancient teaching, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” was never intended to provide a ‘green light’ for spiraling cycles of violence. It was intended to limit acts of retaliation, maintaining parity between the original offense and the response–not ‘a life for an eye,’ or ‘an entire village for a tooth.’

Consider the estimated number of total deaths wrought by our nation’s wars in Iraq and Afganistan, ostensibly begun as a response to respond to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the ensuing 2,997 casualties. The figures on iraqbodycount.org seemed ridiculously low for 10 years of conflict, so I did more searching. Turns out they only count deaths reported in newspapers in English text or translated into English text.

The website, unknownnews.org lists a more likely scenario of casualties from the two wars during the last decade. They suggest 919,987 killed as a result of both wars, including coalition troops, Iraqi and Afgani troops, contractors, journalists, and civilians. Their estimate of the injured is staggering. Although the truth will never be known, they do a thorough job of explaining and defending their calculations. They estimate the total number wounded in 10 years of conflict in two wars as 1,739, 547.

No one in their right mind could consider even the low statistics of iraqbodycount.org, estimating 106,000 Iraqi deaths in that war alone, as proportional retribution, even by an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” standard! Jesus’ teaching to ‘love our enemies’ challenges the ethics of both the Church and the State to the core.

What if, after 9/11, our government had assembled the best minds in the nation on nonviolent, peacemaking strategies, crafting a truly creative response that would have taken the entire world by surprise? What if? We can only dream, because that never happened. In the build-up to the Iraq War, the vast majority of religious voices (I think the Southern Baptists were the lone exception) pleaded for continued inspections of former nuclear facilities rather than the bombing campaign dubbed “Shock and Awe.” These voices were shut out of the dialogue. And what a blasphemous use of the word “awe”!

There is nothing we can do as Christians that is more counter-cultural than loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate or harm us. This is hard work to do alone. Done together, it is still both challenging and risky. Yet it is the path that Jesus walked and calls us to take with him.

May we walk the slippery slope of radical love with the One whom we profess to follow. Amen.

Which Way are We Going and Who’s Going with Us?

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Psalm 119:1-16
Steve Hammond
February 13, 2011

Psalm 119 is a long testimony to the power and wonder of God’s word and ways. We just touched on the first few verses this morning. How do you feel when people use language like ‘teach me thy ways and I will obey them?’ There are some people who really get off on Psalm 119. Something like Psalm 119 has a lot to offer unless the person quoting it, or similar passages or sentiments, seems to indicate they know what those ways are and you don’t. And even if you don’t have those external voices questioning your faith or faithfulness, there can be those internal voices that do. ‘I’m not very good at following God’s ways. What kind of Christian am I, anyway? I’m not nearly as spiritual as [fill in the blank] and never will be.’

“Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. Blessed are those who keep God’s statutes and seek God with all their heart—they do no wrong but follow God’s ways.” That doesn’t sound like any of us. And to a lot of people it didn’t even sound anything like Jesus. They regarded him as far from blameless and always violating the laws and statutes of God. He would do things he wasn’t supposed to do on the Sabbath. He wasn’t very good at keeping Kosher or keeping himself separated from those considered unclean. He was even put on trial as a blasphemer. He didn’t seem like someone whose desire was to walk in God’s ways.

Jesus actually did all those things that they saw as violating God’s laws and statutes. They weren’t making it up. He didn’t try to hide it. But he also said things like he had come to fulfill the law, not abolish it. He went really over the top in the Sermon on the Mount when he equated lust with adultery and anger against someone else as murder.

When it came to following the law, observing God’s ways and statutes, he also said things like “Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump.” So what was going on that Jesus could both be pretty loose with the law but also double down on it?

There were folk around in Jesus’ day who were the ones who really worked on being blameless, walking in God’s laws and keeping God’s statutes, much more than Jesus seemed to do. They were talking about God’s law all the time. Weeping and wailing about our failures to live as God wants us to. They were always one upping everyone else because they were so dedicated to God’s word. And they were the ones Jesus had the hardest time with. Jesus sums up his problem with them at the beginning of Matthew 23. “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.” Jesus called us to follow him, not them, even though they held God’s word in such high esteem, and based their whole lives on how they wanted to observe everything God commanded.

This has always been a bit of a mystery. Jesus could be seen as a law breaker, but at the same time, make the law more demanding than any of his opponents did. Here’s what David Lose, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul says about that. ”Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t think Jesus’ main concern is with the law at all. Seriously. I think Jesus is talking about God, specifically, the realm of God, the realm that is coming and, indeed, is made manifest in his life, death, and resurrection. And whenever you’re talking about God you’re also talking about relationships. Which, of course, names the problem with the law, or at least our response to it, in the first place. You see, we think the law is about, well, being legal – you know, it’s about doing the right thing, staying in the lines, keeping your nose clean. But the law is actually concerned with relationships.”

It’s not only in the Gospels, though, that you see such struggles. The Apostle Paul dealt with the same thing in the early church. The whole book of 1 Corinthians outlines the conflict Paul had with those who understood themselves to be the most spiritual and righteous people in the church, even more spiritual and righteous than Paul.

Both the Pharisees and the folk in Corinth missed the point. Learning God’s ways, being blameless, keeping God’s laws and statues is not about following a bunch of rules and regulations. Walking in God’s ways is not about checking off the boxes, but about walking with each other, about being in relationship with other human beings.

Remember when that guy asked Jesus to sum up the law? What did Jesus say? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, all your strength and your neighbor as yourself.” That’s the heart of God’s law, God’s statutes, being blameless. Walking in love. And that’s what Jesus kept telling the Pharisees they weren’t getting and what Paul had to talk about again and again.

Those folk in Corinth were all excited about how their knowledge and faith exceeded those of anyone else, including members of their own congregation. Or how their group was more spiritual than the other groups in their church. What was Paul’s response? 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. “If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all God’s mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. “

Walking in God’s ways, Jesus shows us, is not figuring out what God wants from us–don’t do this, don’t do that–but what God wants for us. What better relationship guide is there than what Jesus also says in The Sermon on the Mount, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” And what did Jesus say to the disciples near his death? “A new command I give you, love one another as I have loved you.”

The law wasn’t given by God to be used by God or anyone else as a weapon against us. Nor is that pathway something open only to the most spiritual of us. Walking in God’s laws and statutes, being blameless before God is not an impossible burden.

Last semester, I gave a real short meditation at a service on campus where I talked about the encounter Jesus had with the foreign woman who wanted her daughter healed. At first, Jesus refused because he said he had been sent to the people of Israel. The woman, kept insisting and Jesus ended up healing her daughter. I suggested that Jesus may had learned something important about God’s ways in that encounter.

That suggestion really set someone off in the audience. This angry young woman approached me afterwards. She was almost in tears because I had suggested that Jesus had learned something from the woman whose daughter he healed. She told me that she treasured the scriptures that told her Jesus was from the beginning and, therefore, already knew everything. She saw my suggestion as an assault on the word of God, itself. If my suggestion is anywhere near correct, though, it shows that Jesus was willing to enter into relationships with people he wasn’t supposed to, like this foreign woman, and learn something about God and his mission from her.

I think it is true that Jesus demands more of us, more than the Pharisees of times past or the fundamentalists of times present do. But Jesus also promises us more. When he calls us to follow him, he leads us to each other because it’s from each other and those around us that we discover the ways of God and how to walk in God’s path.

This journey we are on with Jesus is not just a me and Jesus and the Bible journey. We walk this path together, because that’s the only way Jesus knows how to take us to God.

“Teach me thy ways and I will walk in them.” But not without each other.

What Kind of Fast Do You Choose?

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:6-8
February 6, 2011
Mary Hammond

In his time, Mark Twain was an astute critic of the Christian church. One of his famous comments goes something like this: “It’s not what I don’t understand in the bible that bothers me; it’s what I do understand.” Today’s text from Isaiah 58 reminds me of Twain’s keen insight. The meaning of today’s text is about as straight-forward as a biblical passage can get.

The latter part of the Book of Isaiah is believed to be written years after the exiles returned to Israel from Babylon in 539 B.C.E. According to John C. Holbert, Professor at Perkins School of Theology, the next 100 years saw various prophetic authors, writing in the Isaiah-school, record their perspectives and critiques of the practice of religion. Isaiah 58 is considered one of these texts (www.patheos.com).

It is no surprise that fasting is one of the topics addressed during this post-exilic period. As a spiritual practice, fasting has a long and rich history within the nation of Israel. At various times in the Hebrew scriptures, fasting is employed to stave off disaster (2 Chronicles 20:1-3, Jonah 3:1-6), influence the deity (II Samuel 12:16, Jeremiah 36:9), and accompany acts of mourning (Judges 20:26, 31:11-13).

Penning the yearnings of God’s heart, the prophet examines fasting as spiritual practice, rejecting the narrow emphasis on external acts of piety divorced from ethical behaviors. What kind of fast is God seeking? It is not enough to wear a long face while denying oneself food and drink. The fast God chooses is not about what the people give up; it is about what they practice. God’s fast embodies acts of mercy, justice, and compassion, such as clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and caring for one’s family. In doing this, the people will fast from greed, violence, injustice, and self-preoccupation, sins the prophet condemns among them.

When I go on Silent Retreat, whether for two days or a week, I fast from many accessories to my daily life at home. No computer, no cell phone communication, no television, no reading outside the scriptures and one devotional book, no work projects, no “to do” lists.

The first time I went on a week-long Silent Retreat, my Spiritual Director handed me a little wooden angel, holding a heart in her hand. She said, “Every time someone else’s need comes to your mind this week, look at this angel and place that person and their need in the heart of God. This retreat is about you and God, period.”

I had no idea how difficult this would be for me. I had never done anything in my life for a week that was just about me and God, period. I can’t tell you how many times I looked at that wooden angel and placed one person after another in the heart of God. Many of you here are among the people for whom I did that!

The first 24 hours of Silent Retreat is still the most challenging for me. It is difficult to empty myself this deeply, but necessary in order to to create that open space for God’s surprising work within the silences of my heart. Who would ever think that this kind of fasting could be so transforming? I imagine at times that this is the kind of fasting Jesus must have done–not from computers and cell phones, but from the demands and distractions of his everyday life–when he took off for the hills, set out alone in a boat, or spent the night on the mountainside in prayer. Fasting from life in the fast lane makes it possible to re-enter it in a whole different space.

Some people complained as they questioned Jesus, “Why is it that the disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but yours do not?” (Mark 2:18).

They were equating the practice of going without food and drink with the evidence of authentic spirituality. They weren’t looking for a fast that wed the inner and outer life, with the goal of transforming both. They weren’t seeking the Isaiah 58 kind of fast that Jesus wholly embraced–to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, and welcome the stranger.

As we join the journey of the heart with the journey of our actions, we fast from a host of ills that plague humanity. We fast from elitism and fear of those so many label, the “other.” We fast from prejudice and self-preoccupation. We fast from stinginess and greed. We fast from distractions and dependencies that pull us away from God.

As Mark Twain might say, were he alive today: “It’s as plain as day.” The Holy One who calls us to be light and salt to the earth invites us into a divine/human partnership for the sake of the common good. It’s about spiritual sensitivity as well as ethical and moral commitment. It’s about charity and justice, ourselves and our neighbor. The fast that God chooses changes us, transforming us bit by bit into the image of Christ.

Some of you may have heard Oberlin College student, Allie Lundblad, preach here last April. She is a Religion major with a calling to ministry. She spends a lot of time reading, thinking, writing, researching, and reflecting on religion.

Allie and three other students from Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin spent Winter Term among the monks at the Taize Community in France. Steve and I picked up two of the students at the airport and decompressed with them over dinner (which, Europe-time, was from midnight to 2 a.m.!).

Their first week was spent in silence. Throughout the second, they worked at assigned tasks around the monastery. Allie’s favorite task was cleaning the toilets. In the silence, this act became for her a deep time of spiritual reflection and solidarity.

As you might guess, Allie was full of stories, but one observation really stood out to me. I wish I could remember her exact words and communicate the passion in her voice. Sadly, I cannot, but she said something like this: “When we study our faith, we think so much about our beliefs and our understandings, but what I saw at Taize was a bunch of monks who owned nothing and whose lives were all about serving God and serving others. They truly, literally, left everything behind to simply live like Jesus lived. And that’s really what the Gospel is about–being like Jesus. This is what inspired me the most about being at Taize.”

As we share in the Lord’s Supper today, we are reminded of the breadth, length, height, and depth of the Good News of Jesus Christ. The prophet from Isaiah gives us a vision of a new world, one in which we partner with and labor alongside the God of all Creation. How incredible is that? As we put our hands to the plow, streams of living water flow from our hearts, light radiates along our path, and transformation happens–within us; around us; through us; and–yes, thankfully-sometimes in spite of us.

What kind of fast do you choose this day? How is God calling you to be more like Jesus?

On the Road to a Revolution

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Matthew 5:1-16
January 30, 2011
Steve Hammond

Last week Mary talked about the story in Matthew 4 where Jesus called the first folk to follow him. I like that story for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it is so well written.

I just learned about the writer, Lydia Davis, who writes terrific stories. Some of them very short. Some of them only a sentence or two. The story of the call of the first disciples is like her writing. It’s short, but filled with powerful images. Jesus walking along the lakeshore. Simon and Andrew casting their nets into the water. James and John in the boat mending their nets and leaving their father and boats and nets behind to follow Jesus.

Another thing I like about the story is that Jesus doesn’t do anything more than call them to follow him. There is no preaching to them. He doesn’t ask them to sign a statement of faith or agree to a set of doctrines or a creed. He doesn’t say anything to them other than “Follow me.” And they do, even though he doesn’t say anything about where they are going.

In just a couple of more verses, though, Matthew takes us to the beginning the Sermon on the Mount and shows us where Jesus is going and what following him is about. I don’t think those first followers of Jesus or any of us who have followed him since then realized what we were getting into.

You probably noticed I used much different wording for the beatitudes than you usually find. But I do think that the whole idea of honor, and who God honors, really captures what the beatitudes are saying. Part of the problem with using words like ‘happy,’ or ‘blessed’ is that they help promote the idea that the beatitudes simply present a set of attitudes that Christians should emulate. Robert Schuler, the former Pastor of the Crystal Cathedral and one of the first big time TV preachers, for example, wrote a rather popular book called the Be Happy Attitudes.

And it is quite common for authors, preachers, and Bible study leaders to proclaim the blessings that are ours because we chose to be meek or be peacemakers. But, do you really think that Jesus wanted us to be happy or consider ourselves blessed when we are mourning or being persecuted? Do you think he wanted us to adopt an attitude of persecution or mourning?

And notice the way I worded that beatitude that we usually hear as something like blessed are the meek or the gentle. What that word really means, evidently, is something more like humiliated or bullied. I don’t think Jesus was suggesting that being humiliated or bullied is something that should make us happy or make us feel blessed, or something we should try aspire to for that blessing to come.

We need to look at the beatitudes in a different way. A way that really makes sense when you place it right after the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. That’s why I went with the idea of God honors those who are poor in spirit, or God honors those who are makers of peace, or mourning, or humiliated, or persecuted. Those are not simply attitudes they have developed, but realities they are living. And, it seems to me, that Jesus is showing us that God has a much different idea of who we ought to be honoring in this world than we usually do.

There is the impulse to look at the beatitudes one by one. That would not be a bad thing to do, even if it took us several sermons. There would be value in exploring being pure in hear, or being peacemakers. But there is a forest here we have to make sure we don’t miss because of the trees. Jesus, remember, did not spend any time dwelling on each of the beatitudes. They are presented to us all at once because the whole really is greater than the parts, even though the parts each have a lot to offer.

The best place to start with the beatitudes is at the end. ‘God honors, and we do to, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the realm of heaven. Honored are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account…’

Why would people be persecuted and reviled for following Jesus? Because, I might suggest, Jesus is showing us that God honors the most unexpected people. The poor in spirit, those who are mourning, the merciful, the pure in heart, the humiliated and bullied, those hungering and thirsting for what’s right to prevail, the peacemakers.

Do you see where Matthew is going? When we are called to follow Jesus, when we drop our nets and leave our boats and fathers behind, Jesus is going to take us to a place that totally rearranges how we understand how things are supposed to work in this world, including who God honors. It’s no wonder Jesus didn’t try to explain it at the beginning. It’s something you have to pick up along the way. And, as you recall, the disciples didn’t pick it up easily.

Let me do a little commercial presentation here for the book, A New Kind of Christianity, we are going to be reading next month for our study group. Brian McLaren talks about the whole business of Jesus and the trinity by saying we think of Jesus as kind of like God. But, he says, the real value of the concept of the trinity is that it helps us think of God as kind of like Jesus. That, he says, will help us clear up a whole lot of misconceptions about God, including some that come from other parts of the Bible.

There is no better place to get a real good look at Jesus than the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the beatitudes that set the whole tone for the sermon. So, if you would permit, I would like to simply spend the next few minutes throwing out some further observations and questions about the beatitudes. This, Brian McLaren, in his just mention book, suggests is the real way to read the Bible. Not as a textbook. Not as some kind of constitution or set of by-laws for Christianity. Not as some kind of operators manual. But as something that provokes observations and questions that are best explored with other followers of Jesus.

*When Jesus talks about the poor in spirit and the persecuted, he says the realm of heaven is, not will be, theirs. This is another problem we have with the beatitudes. We think they provide some ways of getting us into heaven. But that’s not it at all. The Realm of Heaven or God is something that can be possessed on this side of the grave. Did you ever hear that verse from the Bible, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” When I’m thinking about the Realm of God or Heaven, the thing that Jesus said is the most important thing to seek, I like the phrase Culture of God.

*What does it mean that the humiliated and bullied will inherit the earth?

*Nowhere do the beatitudes say those who mourn will always be comforted, or those who hunger for what’s right to prevail will always be satisfied. Is it enough that those who mourn are comforted some of the time? Or that the hunger for what’s right is satisfied only now and then?

*Why is it that the pure in heart get to see God?

*Why are peacemakers called God’s children?

When we hit the road with Jesus, leave the nets behind, honor and honors take on a whole different meaning. And along the way, Jesus shows us who God honors.

It’s Epiphany, that time in the church year when we focus on the light that has come into the world with Jesus. What does Jesus say to those men and women with him after he finishes the beatitudes? “You are the light of the world.” When we follow Jesus he is not just leading us to the light, he intends that the light shine through us.

I don’t think the beatitudes are an exhaustive list of who is honored. But as we follow Jesus, we learn who is honored in God’s culture, and how to honor them ourselves.