Blessed Are They

Matthew 5:1-12

Don’t you love it when there’s a simple set of instructions? Many of you know that I love to cook, the experimentation with flavors is great. But there are times when I love simply following the three easy step instructions of easy mac. Exact measurements of milk and butter. No need to be creative, just tell me what to do.

Wouldn’t it be great if all of life was like that? For example, wouldn’t it be great if there were “three simple rules to being a good ______” Fill in the blank: parent, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend. And the plethora of self-help books to the contrary, the truth of the matter is that they don’t really exist. They don’t exist even for the life of faith… and those would be really nice.

This desire to make this opening of Jesus’ sermon on the mount a today list. And then we take a look at it and realize that this is difficult. For example, if someone tries to complete the “blessed are those who mourn”, how much mourning is required? And not only that but even if the beatitudes were a list of instructions for how to be a good follower of Jesus, we’d have to be careful that we were not turning a vibrant, rich faith that is lived in response to God’s gracious actions towards us into a list of checkboxes that would amount to saying that our works are what saves us.IMG_0458

The beatitudes are not instructions and neither are they aspirations. These words of Jesus are descriptors of God’s KIngdom, they tell us how we act when we are living in God’s kingdom.

Blessed. When we use this term, we usually mean it to convey that we’re doing well or that we are lucky. Many times I hear people refer to being blessed as a way to convey that they are doing far better than they desire. But these mis the mark. Well, at least they miss the mark for the way blessed is used hear. For these beatitudes, to be blessed is not a temporal state of being, but to be blessed is to be deemed by God to be included in God’s kingdom.

So “blessed are those who mourn” is not an admonishment for a follower of Jesus to mourn for someone who has died. Rather, blessed are those who mourn tells us that we are living in God Kingdom and included in God’s kingdom when we look out and realize that we are still some distance away from the vision that God has for creation, and we mourn that distance. Blessed are the peacemakers means that we are not blessed when seek to end violence but that we are participating in God’s Kingdom as we seek to live out and proclaim in God’s peaceable kingdom.

This is a subtle but important distinction. We aren’t performing deeds so as to gain God’s favor but rather, we have received God’s grace and as a faithful response we seek to participate in what God’ is already doing.

What does that look like for us today?

With the snow storm that we all lived through this past week, there emerged a story about who to blame. Your response about who to blame for the inexcusable tragedy of people having to spend the night in their car when it was below freezing depended on, mostly, political party. Some wanted to blame the governor, others wanted to blame the mayor. And while there will be time to ascribe blame as well as figure out what to do so as this never happens again, another story emerged.

That story had to do with how people responded to crisis. I was overwhelmed as I sat there Tuesday night, the news on, my laptop in my lap and Facebook exploded. Individuals began posting things like, “My loved one is stuck in traffic on I-20, can anyone put her up?” or another would post “I live near the intersection of i-85 and Bever Ruin, I have an extra bedroom and plenty of food. If you need a place to stay, text me” And they left a phone number.

It is told that a pharmacist walked up and down the interstate with needles, insulin and test kits, knowing that there would be diabetics stuck in traffic, unable to get to life saving medication. And others tell that though they brought no provisions of their own, others who had plenty shared so that everyone in the surrounding cars had enough to eat.

These are signs of the in breaking of God’s kingdom. People did not do this so that they could tick a checkbox. People did these acts of mercy as a response and their compassion is a sign of God’s coming kingdom.

When we are “blessed” we are deemed to be part of God’s kingdom. We are included.

Isn’t that what this is really what its all about? Not simply “what happens to me when I die.” Well, yes, that but a much bigger question, “am I part and partial of God’s loving and gracious activity?” Not am I in but am I included? I’d have to say “yes” if reading these beatitudes resonates with part of how your life has been shaped as you have sought to life a faithful response to God’s love in Jesus in your life, then yes, you are included.

Yes, you are, indeed, blessed.

From the Top

Matthew 4:12-23

Beginnings matter. Just think how different our expectation would be if Star Wars didn’t begin with “A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far Away….” and see that crawl and we didn’t see that crawl telling the background information of Galactic Empires and rebellions.Or the beginning of the movie Up, totally setting us up as we see in a few short scenes the love story that is Carl and Ellie, or think about the very first episode of the series “Lost”– the eye opening, the disorientation, and the dog.

They set our expectations. They, if not point us in the direction we’re going, give us a few landmarks so that what we’re about to experience has some sense of context.

Its no different with Matthew as we begin following Jesus’ ministry. Three things to gleen are that: Jesus’ ministry begins as John’s ends after his arrest, that Jesus went someplace new to begin his ministry, and that when Jesus began calling the disciples, he didn’t veer far from his new home and the lifestyle of the residents of Capernaum.

Scripture seems to point that subsequent to Jesus’ baptism, his 40 days in the desert,  and then John’s baptism, Jesus assumes the mantle of foretelling that the Kingdom of God had drawn near. A page has turned. Much like Elisha assumed the ministry of Elijah

with John’s demise at hand, his pronouncements that one would follow after him now take root in Jesus stepping forward and living more fully into a public ministry. There was a season for John and now the season of Jesus’ ministry has come into being.

We have seasons in our lives when we are active and when we are resting, when we are leading and when we play supportive roles. I think the key is to, like Jesus, know that there’s a rhythm and a timing to this.

To mark this point of transition and coming to the forefront, he left his home and went to Capernaum. Now, depending on how you read this, it could mean that Jesus went to a place where he was unknown and obscure so that he would not be associated with the ministry of John in a time when it was dangerous to be associated with John, or he was going to the relatively cosmopolitan area that was near the major Roman road traveling north and south from Asia Minor and Syria to the north and Egypt to the south. If it was for the latter, then he wasn’t going to be obscure but for a strategic reason for the spread of the Good News.

I don’t know which reason he went to Capernaum and I’m not really sure that it matters why, but what I think does matter is that he did go. Elsewhere in Scripture we have the words, “a prophet is not without honor in his hometown”. Maybe Jesus knew this before the day when he was run out of his hometown. To tell the good news he needed to be away from distraction and prior narrative about him and his family so that he could be about the work of his public ministry.

We’re like this. Did you know that in many school districts, it is against school policy to go back into the school from which you graduated in order to do your student teaching and practicums? You’re too close, too familiar. There might be something difficult to say that you need to say and folk cannot hear, or maybe the other way around. People who come out of inpatient addiction recovery are told that if they want to have a good chance of staying clean, find a new circle of friends.

New places for new beginnings. Sometimes, responding to our baptism is a very comfortable thing. We receive accolades and recognition. But as the Covenant Service prayer says, sometime we cannot follow Christ unless we deny ourselves. And sometimes that denying self means venturing into the unknown, and it doesn’t have to simply be geographical in nature. For those of us who like control, to give certainty over to God for the sake of responding to our baptism and doing a new and different thing can be scary.

Which leads to a very natural third point: when Jesus called the first disciples, he related well to their context. It is assumed that for all his childhood and early adult life, Jesus trained, apprenticed and grew into the same role as his father: a carpenter (well tekton is better translated artisan, craftsman, or handyman but tradition hold carpenter, so we we’ll go with that).  Have you ever heard the phrase, “if all you have is a hammer in your hand, then everything looks like a nail”? Well, the point is that Jesus grew up in a different environment, different language. And so when he called the very first disciples into ministry, he eschewed the language of either woodworking or stone working. He adopted the metaphors a fisherman would understand: “I’ll make you fish-for people”. And they got it. They understood exactly what Jesus was inviting them to join in on.

It is so easy to stick to our language that we know.

As United Methodists we’re particularly good at this, especially when it comes to code language and acronyms. And sometimes we forget what that what is clearest and simplest is the best. We don’t always need to festoon with such colorful language that we obscure (see what I did there). We don’t need to use insider language or imagery. What we need to use is whatever language or medium that is clearest and most accommodating for people whom we graciously invite into the shared ministry of Jesus.

I’m glad the first children’s sermon I ever did is not on video anywhere. I’d be so embarrassed. Finding accessible language is important for the children in our midst, the teens in our community of faith, and all the people who are not yet here and maybe have no inclination towards church but yet find the need to seek out something beyond themselves as a reoccurring theme in their life. If we can find ways through our deeds which we practice, the metaphors which we embrace and the language we use to connect, who knows how many others can join in this ever-moving, ever changing movement of Jesus followers. New beginnings could be happening all around.

Yes, beginnings are important. We don’t need to doubt that. We know this from our experiences. What’s the phrase? “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Regardless, how we begin matters. How Jesus began his ministry mattered then and matters now.

Today is the last Sunday of January in 2014. That’s hard to believe, right? One month almost gone. But that’s okay. There’s still 11 months to come. We don’t know what they will entail. But what we do know is that while we are in the opening strains of this year, we might have some clues as to how this year is going, so far. Some things we like and some things we don’t.

If you aren’t thrilled with the way things are going, its not too late. You can still begin anew, find a new and different pattern of life, a changed way of attending to this journey we call our life with Jesus.  The invitation is there: maybe we’re out in the boat and its a fine days catch and its difficult to leave our boats and tend a different kind of nets. Maybe we’ve been casting from the banks and not only is our arm sore from casting but our creel basket is empty—we haven’t caught anything. Maybe we’re looking forward to an invitation to try something new. Maybe we’re somewhere in between.

Regardless of where you are on this continuum, Jesus’ invitation to begin new and refresh abides for you, for me and the world. What do you say? Lets go join in.

How Long?

John 1:29-42

”What are you looking for?

Do you remember the Christmas commercial we talked about during our Advent series that advocated spending less on others so that you can spend more on yourself? We all felt so good that that kind of blatant commericalization until some of the post-Christmas ads here advocated buying what you didn’t get for Christmas. When Jesus asked the disciples what they were looking for this is not what he had in mind. A better way of looking at this might be “what do you long for.” May be a better way to look at is like this:

  • what keeps us up at night?
  • what wakes us up in the middle of the night?
  • what gets us out of bed in the morning?

For Dr King it was this ever present cry for all of God’s children to treat each other equally and fairly. His vision for the civil society reflected a more just community was embodied in his “I have a dream” speech that many of us find the words So familiar. Some say that we have achieved that dream, that we live in post-racial society–we have an African-American President is often cited. But its almost as if Dr King knew what we would do. When he was in Memphis, he was attending a protest by sanitation workers. He knew the next step in the civil rights movement was to expand to a poor people’s movement.

We know this, too. As soon as it became illegal to discriminate on the account of race, we looked at class and social economic status. Ever notice the correlation between race and class on one side and what is a desirable school district on the other?

Yes, Doctor King thought about  the day when we would fully live into the dream. But I find something interesting: “Living the dream” has become a sarcastic way of appropriating our lives when our five year plans do not fully work out. Say you meet someone you went to school with. In catching up someone recounts that things aren’t turning out as planned–the job didn’t last or there are health issues. And to turn the conversation away from something awkward there’s a sigh and a smiling face saying “I’m just living the dream.” How sad that we have taken something aspirational and relegated it to something as a symbol of unfulfilled dreams.

Today’s Psalm is “How Long”, like the U2 song 40… how long must we sing this song? How long until God’s kingdom comes into its fullness? How long must we abide injustice?

Some of you know that I am something of a recovering evangelical. For the first years of following Jesus, faith was only about what happens when we die. But the gift of Methodism is that how we live our lives is somehow wrapped up in the process of salvation, both our own and of all creation.

So, given that we are connected, our how long is not “how long until Jesus comes back”  or “how long until we can return home” but “how long until we get to join in”.

One of my core beliefs is that if we greeted this new morning, we are blessed. And, thus, there’s some response. Each of us must decide what our gracious response will be.

Let me give you a few example. Say you think your days of service to the church have passed. Maybe it is true that you are not mobile. But guess what? You can pray for our preschool, teachers & parents. There’s 150 families on our campus during the week. And praying for them is quiet a vocation.

Maybe you say, “my life is too busy”. This is a truism for many. One of the realities of our congregation is that there are several long-serving servant of Jesus and the church who–though they have faithfully responded with their prayers, presence, gifts, and service–they find it increasingly difficult to get to worship. So I would like beginning in February to have folk gather back at the church after lunch on the first Sunday of the month and us take the unused, reserved Communion elements to our home-bound folk to connect the life of this congregation to those who cannot any longer be present physically. That will add an hour to your week, maybe.

Maybe you say that your life is too chaotic, that you cannot commit to anything long-term. That’s fine. There are one-time opportunities. Our trustees have said they want to cut back some shrubs and raise some limbs before spring comes. We’ve also said that we want to beautify the corner of Ponce and Briarcliff as well as our St. Charles entrance. Plans aren’t really in stone, yet. But talk with Andy and he can point you in the right direction for how to get started. Also, the children’s ministry will be repainting our children’s spaces in February. Come for an hour, come for two. Help make our children’s space hospitable. Do you like to cook? Volunteer to cook for our youth group.

This is on top of all the on-going ministry we do like 4th Monday meals at Journey and the food pantry.

Why do we say this? Why is this important?

Roger Nishioka quoted Teresa of Avila this past week in one of the devotions I read. Here he cites Teresa as saying:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours;

no hands but yours;

no feet but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which to look out

Christ’s compassion to the world;

Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;

Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men [and women] now.

So, we wonder how long? How long until the dream is fulfilled? How long until injustice is ended and compassion abides?

Well, friends, you tell me.

We are the vehicle for God’s redemptive activity, through the Spirit. We are capable of so much good. All we have to do is say yes and join in what is essentially a parade of life. Its a long parade, one where if Dr. King is the drum major, then Jesus is the director of bands. But we can join that parade of Teresa’s (both of Avila and Mother), Martin’s, Andrew’s, Edwina’s, Dorothy Day’s, Joseph Lowery’s, and Harvey Milk’s of the world. And once we do, then it won’t be long.

How long?


Down by the Riverside

Matthew 3:13-17

It had been a long bus ride. We were near the end of our day of pilgrimage. The bus pulled off the road and tried to go down a dirt road. We asked, “where we going?”

“The Jordan” the tour guide replied. She continued, “Oh, I could take you to the tourist trap… nowhere near where Jesus would have been. But this place is a little out of the way.” Our pilgrimage coordinator wanted to end the day with a remembrance of Baptismal vows.

Soon the coach stopped and started backing up. Tour tour guided added that it was too difficult to get to the “local place” she wanted to take us. We got back on the road and soon turned off the road again, stopping in a park. There were trees, dirt, and a deep, fast-running river nearby, so I assumed it was a park. But I didn’t see park benches or picnic tables.

What I did see was the floating pontoon bridges that tanks use to cross rivers where bridges have been blown up. The guide said they were left over from a prior conflict, stationed nearby, hidden from the trees, in case they were ever needed again.IMG_0837

And so it was there, among the trees, evidence of war, and a fast-moving river, too deep and too dangerous to wade into, that we had a service of remembrance of vows.

We even had to hold someones hand as they leaned over the edge of the riverbank to dip an empty, used water bottle as our vessel.

I didn’t think too much of that service of remembrance that day. To be honest I would have rather on the day been at the tourist trap. And it was because I was angry about the floating bridges for trucks and tanks. But now I’m glad we were there. Life is not a tourist attract.

Life is messy. Life has abandoned parts. Life has turbulent parts. And all of that is in the middle of God’s beautiful creation.

One of my favorite things to do in a life of ministry is to baptize children. It is a lovely service and its full of hope. But in the way we usually perform baptisms… that sweet moment when a child becomes part of the family of God… we miss something that our Baptist sisters and brothers have retained: that in plunging into the waters and raising back up, we are dying to an old way of being and raising to a new way of seeing and being in the world.

Part of that new way of life is engaging the world. But there’s this rhetoric out there that this new life is:

  • easy street, or
  • burying our  head in the sand

Neither is true.

For the first, we are called to discipleship and a large part of that discipleship involves our finances. This is not that money comes easy or there won’t be any hardship. This past week when I, like many of you, saw our giving statements, I stopped for a second… for a brief second… and thought, “Hmm. If I tithed to my student loan, I’d be debt free in 4 years.” Sometimes radical love means putting something besides your own bottom line first.

Followers of Jesus don’t sit in a room praying, hoping for Jesus to come back. We engage in addressing the hurt and sufferings of the world. This past week when folks in this congregation called our home bound folk to make sure all was well before and during the cold spell, we were serving. When we opened the warming station for the time when the homeless folk in our neighborhood didn’t have a place to go, we provided warm drinks, shelter, games, reading, and dancing!

But what is it about our baptism and our faith that forms us to do such a thing, rather than sit in our warm homes, drinking hot chocolate, waiting on school and work to be cancelled?

Because Jesus, in beginning his ministry, chose to begin with submitting to John’s baptism. He didn’t need forgiveness of sins. He didn’t need to turn life around. But he was beginning a new journey. He chose to begin new journey at the Jordan.

Because of this, he is not going to ever ask of us something he hasn’t done. But more importantly, he began ministry among the people who felt they needed a new start and repentance, who felt not worthy. So Jesus’ ministry is not just to us its with us. He journey’s with us.

We get this in culture: the president, though his healthcare is provided by the Air Force signed up with gov as a symbol to say “I am with you.”

[Update: a friend gave me a good tip on another leader who has done something symbolically to express solidarity. Dr. Robert Bentley not taking a salary until Alabama’s unemployment rate gets to 5.2%. Thanks, Heather! Wish I had this for the sermon delivery.]

We need “I am with you moments.” My daughter loves the beach. At the same time, she’s afraid of water. And that’s okay. There’s something about the water that can be refreshing but there’s also something in the water that foreboding: tides and currents, we don’t readily see what’s swimming out there (jellyfish, anyone? Hammerhead sharks?). We are not anxious in life for no good reason, usually.

Whenever we have anxious moments, we need someone with us, someone who’s been there, someone who knows the way forward. For my child that meant me or her mother. For us in our lives, many times that’s a friend, a family member a loved one. It could even be a member of this congregation. And that helps many times.

But sometimes we need to remember that Jesus is near, too. And we need to remember that, especially when no one is around.

It’s comforting but it’s also a reminder that we’re not doing anything novel. Jesus has gone before and Jesus still travels with. He says, “I am with you.”

After all, that’s the story of Christmas, right… radical identification with something most precious… and that most precious thing is you.

So when you find yourself near the deep, fast-moving waters of life or you find yourself surrounded by reminds of conflict and maybe even war, when even find yourself alone and you think no one is around. Remember, your baptism. And be thankful. More importantly, remember Jesus’ baptism. And be thankful. You’re not alone.


The Magi, Resolutions, and Journeys

Gospel Lesson: Matthew 2:-12


I don’t like them…. and not for the reason you think.

I think its great to strive for something and to have a system of gracious accountability.

What I don’t have a whole lot of time for is guilt.

It seems that the whole system of setting new years resolutions is wrapped up in two phenomena:

that we missed the mark in the year prior. We messed up. Slip down that slope too far and you run into “I’m a horrible person”

But that’s not all. I think that resolutions set us up for failure. Unrealistically high goals, usually going from point zero to accomplishment in 1 day. That’s inhuman. No one can do that, especially not alone.

Phil Schroeder, Director of Congregational Development for the N. Georgia Conference shared an article from Entrepreneur Magazine. In this article, the author shared a similar viewpoint to what I have been sharing. He goes to the extreme of never setting new years resolutions. Forget even setting goals.

Instead, he suggests committing to a system.

I quote from the article:

  • If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.

  • If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.

  • If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.

  • If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.

Commit to the system and then regularly check in to see if the system is getting you towards your goal.

All of this sounds rather simple, right? But its a seismic shift.

Many of you know I like Alabama football. Their coach is known for talking about “the process”  and how if players commit to the process–which means doing the off-season conditioning, knowing the play book, going to class, respect yourself and the University, and play each play to the best of your ability–then the championships will talk care of themselves.

When players commit to that mindset, things happen. When they buy into hype about being the best team, thinking they need to focus on championships instead of making plays, they lose.

Churches are no different. If we as a community of faith say, “we want 100 more people in worship” or we say “we want $30,000 in giving annually”, more times than not, generosity and gracious hospitality does not happen.

But when we say we want to be a community where people experience God’s radical love in a way that changes people’s lives, then who knows what can happen. Then congregations can start planning for how people respond to God’s love.

The Magi are an example of this. As I alluded to on the church’s facebook page, I don’t think the Magi woke up one morning in their homes and decided that they would give rich gifts to a homeless family staying in a barn in an outskirt of Jerusalem.

Their years of training led them to understand that the star in the sky pointed to a new king being born. They used that training to set a course westward. They continually checked their course. Its fairly safe to assume they asked people if they had heard of a new King being born. Did they read the signs right?

Ultimately, they found themselves kneeling to the the Holy Family and worshipping the Christ Child. It wasn’t in the place they expected. I assume their worship wasn’t directed towards the people they assumed they’d be reverencing. But they got to where they needed to be.

It isn’t really that different with our personal lives.

  • “I want to be skinner”
  • “I want to be a better Christian”
  • “I want give up (fill in favorite vice)”

These are herculean tasks. But maybe if we commit to a system for our lives, those huge goals and resolutions can be attained. After all, this is one of the gifts of Methodism to the world, right?: a plain system of accountability that comprised of spiritual formation and holy living.

Much like the “10,000 steps a day” model of getting healthier, what if we said,

  • “I’m going to worship more frequently, expecting to meet Christ somewhere that day. “
  • “I’m going to commit to some type of learning opportunity, even if it means giving up something I currently enjoy.”
  • “I’m going to find 1 place to regularly serve my neighbor.”

Pick one, pick two, pick all three. They are all things that can lead to committing to a process of living a deeper, more faithful life. And not only pick one of these but assist our faith community in providing this structure for each other.

But why do this? Is it just for self-edification?


Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us in Daily Feast: Meditation on from Feasting on the Word, Year A that the Isaiah text we read today references this:

that for the prophet Isaiah, God’s glory is completed in the glorification of God’s people. Their radiance is essential to any bright future of God’s own imagining. If they hope to sit on the sidelines while someone else shines instead of them, then they have missed their central role in God’s vision. They are not God, but God’s presence will be seen over them. They are not kings. But kings shall walk by their shining radiance.

On this cold, cold day when we could all use a little light, a little warmth, let us let our light shine not “in 2014” but each day, a new commitment. You never know who you are going to influence, who’s path you are going to illuminate, or who’s epiphany you are going to announce.


Image by Prio