Our Deepest Fear

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness. That most frightens us. We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; It’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.                                                                                                                    – Marianne Williamson

I used a portion of the above quote in my sermon this past Sunday because I was fascinated by the way she articulated so beautifully the nature of fear.  In the sermon, these words connected the notion that fear, or at least the self-doubt brought about by fear, with the idea that we should live out the transformation we discover in Christ.  Practicing Transfiguration, I called it.  And this concept is especially appropriate as we enter the season of lent.  Lent is all about change; being transformed; transfigured.  Lent is about turning things around. It’s about realizing our shortcomings and finding a way overcome them.  Lent is about rediscovering and refreshing our relationship with the Divine and then living into that relationship by loving and serving the poor, outcast, and the refugee.

Beyond the transformation that lent requires, however, the times we live in are also demanding change.  Global climate change threatens to destroy our beautiful earthly home necessitating we change the way we produce energy. The shouts of hate and division seem to be louder than the voices of justice, challenging us to summon the courage to speak up.  There are terrorist threats and acts of violence every day that are beyond our control.  And these are just a few examples. There are so many things to worry about and so many trials that can lead us to a place of fear.

But here’s the thing. If we allow fear to extinguish the light of our being, we cannot shine. If we allow fear to keep us from sharing God’s love across the street and spreading God’s justice across the globe, then fear has won the day. As Marianne Williamson said, “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” And that’s the task of the Church.  We are to be about the restoration and healing of individuals and of nations. We are to be a source of light to those shrouded in darkness.  Whether that darkness is physical or psychological or spiritual.  As the church, we are finally to shine forth the liberating light of God so that others may also discover, burning within their being, that same light.

In the days and weeks and months to come, may the Light of the Divine continue to burn brightly within and beyond your soul, and may your faith prevail over any fear this world can throw at you.

Dazzling Reign

Matthew 17:1-9

 

Here we are. We’ve come full circle through the Season of Epiphany.  Epiphany has taken us from the visit of the Wise Men, to the Baptism of Jesus, continued with the calling of the disciples, lead us through the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, finally landing us today, smack-dap in the middle of the Transfiguration.

You know, this sequence is important because there’s a natural connection between the baptism and the transfiguration. They’re bookended. In both instances, God’s voice affirms Christ’s mission. “This is my Son,” God’s voice says, “marked by my love.” But in the Transfiguration text, if you read carefully, you’ll notice that Matthew adds something. He adds: “listen to him.” Those present at the Jordan River witnessed the anointing of Christ’s mission, but those select few who were on the mountain with Christ that day were privy to the deeper challenge his mission entailed.  And as we dive into this teaching today, that’s our challenge as well.  We are called to listen to Jesus in a sense that goes beyond only hearing the words, but also invites us to live them out in our everyday lives.

So, what does this deeper challenge look like? Well, in a word, Jesus was about seeing that God’s justice was done.  God’s justice means making sure that the hungry are fed, that the oppressed are set free, that sick and lonely and depressed are visited and cared for and healed, and that the widows and orphans and the immigrants and the refugees have someone to watch over them.

And this wasn’t a new idea. This same understanding of God’s justice was present in the Hebrew Bible as well. So, it was not accident, when Matthew penned his account of the Transfiguration, that he included characters that his hearers would have immediately associated with transformative justice. Moses and Elijah weren’t necessarily a “reflection” of Jesus’ experience, but rather a “pre-flection” Yes, I made that word up but it really fits, doesn’t it? “Pre-flection.” Remember now, both Moses and Elijah had transformative experiences of God’s presence prior to Jesus.  And these experiences, like Christ’s, were on a mountaintop.  Also, in Exodus, after the Golden Calf incident, you recall that from Sunday school, when the people worried that Moses wouldn’t come back from the Mountain so they created a golden idol to worship? Moses then broke the tablets and he went back up the mountain.  But here’s the key thing. When Moses came back after conferring with God, the writer of Exodus tells us that “the skin of his face was shining” Sound familiar? In our reading for today Jesus’ face shone after the Transfiguration. Our test today says that “Sunlight poured from his face.”[i]

So, it’s easy to see, when you lay the full context of the Hebrew Bible and Gospel lessons side by side, that the basic template from the Moses story in Exodus is repeated in the Transfiguration account.  Both mention “six days,” have three named companions in addition to the central figure, both happen on a mountaintop, both result in shining figures, and both have God speaking from a cloud.[ii]

That’s the literary context of this passage, but the important question for us today is the practical application of this text. In other words, how do we begin to reflect on what Practicing Transfiguration might look like in our world?

Well, there’s a quote that immediately comes to mind. Marianne Williamson in her book A Return to Love gives us a ‘jumping off point.’ She writes: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.”[iii]

Isn’t that interesting? “We are born to make manifest” in other words, “make obvious or apparent” the Glory of God or the light of God that is within us. Fear, she postulates, is the thing that keeps us from allowing God’s light to burst forth. Williamson goes on to say, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”[iv] Practicing Transfiguration then, is overcoming our own fears, our own self-imposed limitations, so that we can become an example of courage and action and faithful living to others.

Now, that leads to one of my central convictions as a person of faith. And that conviction is that following the way of Jesus is more important than admiring the Christ. Let me say that again because this is key. Following the way of Jesus is more important than admiring Christ from afar.  It’s not that admiring Christ is a bad thing, it’s vitally important to connect on some level with the Christ of Faith.  But as James points out, “a faith without action is a dead faith.” And I think Williamson’s words reflect James’ understanding of an active faith. Her words illuminate not only a way of being awe-struck by a mountaintop experience 2,000 years ago, but also the importance of following Jesus — along with Moses and Elijah— in a practice of transfiguration: the practice of allowing the light of God’s love to shine through us.

Francis of Assisi is a wonderful example of practicing transfiguration. Born into wealth in the 13th century, Francis, as a young man, wanted to be a knight and fight in the Crusades. But God had other plans for him. The legend goes that like the Apostle Paul, God appeared to Francis on the road and called him to a life of service. Francis resisted for years, but finally God’s call was overwhelming.  Now, his friends and family thought he was nuts for giving away all his earthly possessions and leaving a life of comfort to serve the poor. But Francis understood his transformation, his transfiguration, was something that needed to be lived out in a very practical way.  Here’s an example. It was reported that if Francis met a stranger on the road whose clothes were more worn and tattered than his own, Francis would trade with him. And if he had any food, it was equally shared with all who were hungry.

In a very real sense, I think Francis lived a life committed to his understanding of God’s justice.  And this same invitation was given to each of us. Practicing Transfiguration is about living out or reflecting God’s justice in our lives. It’s about practice. It’s about relationship. It’s about the fairness that makes it possible for all people to thrive equally.

This is something that was “established” in the Hebrew Bible, so it should come as no surprise to us that Jesus set about establishing God’s justice.  Seeing that God’s justice was done could very well have been a “mission statement” for Jesus. Except that in Jesus’ case, he expanded the scope of who could receive God’s justice.  There was a strong and consistent theology of “taking care of the alien, the stranger, the refugee” in the Old Testament.  But there was a problem. This theology wasn’t being practiced in the everyday lives of the people of Israel. The outsider was most often ignored, chased away, or outright killed.  But Jesus was determined to “see that justice was done everywhere.” And the way he “established” this new understanding of justice was by living it out. And when this new way of being was about to cost him his earthly life, he challenged those around him, and those of us who would follow him still today, to see that justice is done for everyone, everywhere. Especially, in our day and age, justice for the immigrant; for the refugee; for the stranger.  My friends, the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel are very clear on this, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love your neighbor, all your neighbors, as Jesus loves them.

One final thought this morning on practicing transfiguration. The text says that “sunlight poured from Jesus’ face” and that “his clothes were filled with light” These are images of what was going on up on that mountain. They are colorful images that indicate that change was afoot.  “His appearance changed from the inside/out, right before their very eyes.”[v]  Even for the Messiah, the Divine incarnation of God on earth, change was possible.  Jesus changed from the inside/out on that mountaintop that day. From the inside/out.  This is important of us as well.  As we go forth from this service today, and go about practicing transfiguration, as we go about participating the Dazzling Reign of God on earth, as we go about sharing God’s justice with our neighbors; it’s important to remember that it all starts on the inside.  Change, a new attitude, a new perspective, and transformed heart and a transfigured soul.  These things are possible, even in situations when change may seem improbable.  Through grace and with abundant patients, transfiguration is possible.  But it must start on the inside. Change comes first from the heart and then, then the Light of God, the brilliance of Jesus Christ, and the illumination of the Spirit can shine forth for all to see.

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen.

[i] Eugene Peterson.  The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.      (NavPress, 2002) Matt. 17:1-3

[ii] Carl Gregg.  Practicing Transfiguration (www. pathos.com) 2011

[iii] Marianne Williamson. A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles (New York: Harper Collins) 1992

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Peterson Ibid.

 

 

 

 

 


[i] Eugene Peterson.  The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (NavPress, 2002) Matt. 17:1-3

[ii] Carl Gregg.  Practicing Transfiguration (www. pathos.com) 2011

[iii] Marianne Williamson. A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles

(New York: Harper Collins) 1992

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Peterson Ibid.

 

Fear or Faith?

Matthew 6:25-34

The message for today is… wait for it… “don’t worry, be happy!” Okay, that’s it. Go in peace and drive safe.  (pause) If only it was that easy. Despite today’s lesson, we do worry, don’t we? We worry about the past, we all have regrets and there are things we wish we had done differently.  Hindsight is 20/20.  If only I… You fill in the blank.  But we also worry about the future. What’s going to happen to our children and grandchildren? What if my health fails? What if I run out of money? What if,…  again, you fill in the blank. The simple fact is we worry about all kinds of things.  So what are we to make of this teaching that we have before us today? Well, I read a story this week that may help put things into perspective.

A little boy was riding his bicycle when he saw an old man sitting out on his front porch just smiling away, happy as a lark.  So, the boy turned his bicycle around and said, “Old man, why are you so happy?”  And the old continued to smile and said, “It’s because I have the present.” “Wow!” said the little boy. “I love presents.  Christmas presents.  Birthday presents.  All kinds of presents.  Any time.  How can I get this present?” “Well, you already have it.”  “I already have it?” said the little boy.  “I don’t have any presents.” “Yes, you already have it. Someday you’ll understand.’

Well, some time passed and the little boy grew to be a teenager and by this time the old man and the little boy have become close friends.  The old man had watched the boy grow up and they had many wonderful conversations on that front porch.   During one of those conversations, the boy once again asked “Old man,” he said, “what’s this present you’re always talked about?” “The present is the greatest gift you can ever have.”  “well, if it’s so great, just give it to me already.” “I can’t give you the present.  You already have the present and once you understand, everything else will fall into perspective.” “Well,” the boy persists, “…is it like a magic wand?” “No, it’s not a magic wand.  The present is magical in a way, because once you discover it, everything will make sense.” “Well, is it like a magic carpet that you ride on and you can get anywhere you want to go and do anything you want to do?” “No, it’s not like that at all.  But once you have the present, you’ll be content right where you are.”

Well, some more years passed and the young man graduated from college and by golly he’s figured it out. “I think I finally got it.  The present is right now, isn’t it? “Yes, you’re right.” Said the old man now beaming with pride, “It’s enjoying the moment now.  It’s being in the present.”

A few more years passed, the young man got married, had a couple of kids, but things weren’t going all the well.  So, he came to see the old man and said, “You know, I’m just at a plateau.  Nothing is happening. I’m living in the present as best I can.” Well, the old man said, “there’s a little more to the present then simply living in the moment. You must also learn from your mistakes and let go of past regrets. Only when you do that can you truly live the present.”

The young man went back to his life, he remembered his mistakes, let go of his regrets as best he could and he lived in this present. Now, many more years passed and the once young boy was now a middle-aged man.  He hadn’t been back to see the old man in a long time.  Until, one day he learned that the old man’s health was failing.  He rushed home so see his friend one more time. And as they spoke for the final time, the old man had one more piece of wisdom for his friend.  The old man said, “You’re doing everything right except one thing, you need  purpose and a meaning.  Write it down, think about it, and work every day toward your goal.” The man went back to work, and suddenly, his whole future changed, because life had purpose and meaning.

A few months later the old man died, and man returned home for funeral to discover that from the wealthiest to the poorest, everyone in town it seemed attended the funeral.  The old man had befriended lots of people along the way and he had shared the “present” with all of them.[i]

You can understand why I couldn’t help but think of today’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount as I read this story.  Jesus says, “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?

Now one way, the most common way perhaps, to approach this text is to challenge the importance our society places on material things.  It’s like the old George Carlin routine about stuff. “A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.” George would say,  “that’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff! And Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? So you can get even more stuff.”[ii]  And that’s a valid critique of Americans and our fascination with the material.  But I’m not convinced that’s the end-all/be-all of this text. I think Jesus was driving at something deeper here. And the key to this deeper understand lies in our concept of “worry.”

Too often, I think, we put too much emphasis on trying to completely release ourselves from worry.  But that simply isn’t possible and I don’t think that’s what Jesus is asking of us here. Rather, he’s challenging us to put things into proper perspective.  That’s what the story of the old man and the boy was about. Perspective. Putting life, the past and the future into proper perspective so we can be happy in the present. You see, perspective asks us to take a time-out; to take a step back and consider all the possibilities.  It’s like an old boss of mine used to say, “when you’re faced with a decision or a conflict, take a moment to respond rather than react. It may take 5 seconds or 5 minutes or 5 days but respond instead of react.  That’s advice I still use today. Because response requires perspective, thought, consideration.  A reaction is just that, a reaction.

Now, let’s put this into theological terms. When we react to a situation without thinking it through, it usually comes from a place of fear. I would contend that fear, being afraid, is what’s behind Matthew’s concept of “worry.” “Don’t live in fear, worrying about the mundane things of life, but instead, have a little faith that God will provide for all your needs.”

This text, when you view it from this perspective then, is really about choosing faith over fear. As I’ve said many times, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, doubt can be useful in helping us to find our way to faith; no, the opposite of faith is fear. Fear is stifling and it cripples our common sense. Yes, there are times when our natural fight or flight reaction comes into play and is necessary for survival, but most of the time fear is the enemy.  “Who among you by worrying, by living in fear, can add a single moment to your life?” Jesus says.  But, and here’s the alternative; the response from a perspective of faith. “Instead,” he says, “desire first and foremost the Reign of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” And he reinforces this teaching by wonderfully using images of birds and lilies to demonstrate how lovingly God cares for every creature and flower. And through these images Jesus reassures us that God will provide for all our needs as well.

And I know, this is easier said than done. But this is where faith comes into play.  I mean consider that lives of those whom Jesus was addressing on the mountainside that day.  A meal wasn’t waiting for them in the refrigerator or at McDonald’s and they couldn’t go to Walmart and pick up some clothes.  And yet, even though their daily survival depended upon what they could find to eat and what they could make to wear, Jesus tells them to set those worries, those daily fears aside, and depend upon the grace of God.  Even in the face of life or death, maybe especially in the face of life or death, trust in God.  That’s the message here. That’s the essence of faith.

I have one final thought this morning concerning this perspective on faith.  We heard in our Mission Moment last week about the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Ghana Africa.  And that reminded me of some of the African pastors with whom I attended seminary. And I recall the words of one person in particular, a man named Samuel, as he described his calling to ministry.  “In Africa,” he said, “unlike most of you who are called to serve a church, I am called to walk among the nomadic tribes as they move across the land.” “Notice,” he said, “that I use the words, ‘walk with.’ I do not feel as if God called me to “pastor to” the people as much as God had invited me to “walk among” them on their journey.” I think there’s great wisdom in Samuel’s words. When Jesus began to teach the people on that mountainside, he wasn’t preaching to them as much as he was assuring them that God, incarnate, would be walking among them.  And as God walked among them in the human person of Jesus, he would be facing the very same struggles and joys and hardships and celebrations that they were going to face. The UCC statement of faith says, “he shared our common lot.

My friends, we can finally let go of past regrets and worries and release our fears; we can imagine a future with purpose and meaning allowing us to live joyfully in the present, because God is going to “share our common lot”.  We finally do not walk alone. The Reign of God is here, now, walking among us.  Lifting us up when we fall, bringing purpose back into our lives when we stray, and challenging us to fearlessly share this journey of faith with all whom we encounter.  So, as you depart this service today and continue your journey of faith, heed the immortal words of that great theologian, Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t worry, be happy”

May it be so. Amen.

[i] Based on a story by Dr. Spencer Johnson in The Present (Crown Publishing) 2010

[ii] From “Stuff” performed by George Carlin, 1986. (babyboomerflashback.blogspot.com) 2008

Dirty Hands & Radiant Spirits

Matthew 5:13-21

It was a long trip. He was tired. It began to rain. It was about two o’clock in the morning, when a man found himself driving through a small town. He slowed down to thirty miles an hour. Nobody was on the street but suddenly he heard the siren and saw the flashing lights. He pulled over and rolled down the window. The police officer said, “Mister, did you see that sign back there?” “What sign?” “School zone – 15 miles an hour.” “But officer, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning.” “Did the sign say, ‘School zone except at 2 o’clock in the morning’?” “But officer, it’s raining. My windshield wipers aren’t working very well.” “Did the sign say, ‘School zone except at 2:00 when your windshield wipers aren’t working’? The law is the law.”[i]

How often have you faced a similar situation? Caught between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.  Well, that’s where we find ourselves today as we encounter Matthew’s Gospel. Pastor David Lose writes, “…we are again faced with the insidious temptation to hear Jesus’ words as requirement rather than blessing, as command rather than commissioning.”[ii]

Which brings us to the obvious question that we must bring to this text: Why? Why is it important to search for a blessing or to hear Christ’s words as a commission?  Wouldn’t it be easier to just adhere to the letter of the law? Like the officer said, “the law is the law,” right? Well, there’s a problem with that kind of black and white thinking, theologically speaking anyway.  There’s a problem because Jesus often lived in the gray. He says in this passage that he came “not to get rid of the law, but rather to fulfill it.”  But his “fulfillment” it turns out, was more of a “reinterpretation” of the law, or at the very least, a “reimagining” of it. And that’s important for us to acknowledge. Christ didn’t come to do away with the Mosaic law, but instead, he presented a new way of looking at the law.  Jesus viewed the law through the lens of grace rather than legalism.  The law was about blessing others rather than requiring them to “toe-the-line.”

And Matthew makes sure we understand this point. In his account, Matthew reminds us that Jesus often wandered into this “gray” area. The law said, “Don’t touch anyone with a skin disease.” Jesus touched a leper and said, “I choose to make you clean.” The rules said, “Don’t mingle with sinners.” Jesus ate with people of ill repute, saying, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.” The traditions said, “Important people need important positions and important titles. Hang around people like that.” Jesus said, “Don’t get caught up in titles, pomp and circumstance; but rather be a servant of all.”

Christ was coming from a place of grace rather than legalism. You see, he knew the spiritual hunger and the physical suffering of the people he encountered and he knew that they, amid it all, were looking for an experience God.  They already knew the legalistic understanding of God all too well. But in him, in his earthly life, the Reign of God had become a reality.  A Reign that persists today and still exhibits the true nature of God; the very heart and soul of the Divine if you will.

So, Jesus sat these folks down and began to teach them about the grace of God. The Beatitudes, as we discovered last week, were a foreshadowing of what was to come.  They were very heart of his teaching.  The life-blood of what it would mean to follow him. And today, with the Beatitudes fresh off his lips, Jesus transitions to the soul of discipleship; the being and doing of joining him on this journey.

Now, Jesus presents the soul of his mission using some very colorful yet understandable imagery.  He tells the disciples they are salt and light. Notice, he doesn’t say they might become salt and light if they try real hard. This isn’t a prediction or a promise that may or may not come true at some future moment. Jesus flat out declares that the disciples–those still clueless, still confused, still wet-behind-the-ears fishermen are salt and light. That was their status. Period.

But why salt and light? Well, if you think about it, salt is a really amazing mineral. It enhances the flavor of our favorite foods, acts as a preservative, melts the ice on frozen steps and frozen roads, as a matter of fact, it was so value in the ancient world that it was sometimes used as currency. The word “salary” comes from the practice of paying a worker with salt. Salt is an amazing thing when it’s used; but when it isn’t used, when it’s just sitting in a bucket, it isn’t good for anything. Being the “salt of the earth” then, implies that we have some function to perform and some responsibility in this present Reign of God. Our saltiness is lived out when we practice things like loving-kindness and compassion. You see, it’s not about requirement or legalism, rather it’s about invitation and blessing.

I heard an amazing story this week, about a seven-year-old boy who befriended the new kid in the class. What’s so amazing about that, you might ask? Well, the new kid’s name was Ali.  Ali had just moved to Iowa with his mother and father from Somalia.  They arrived only two weeks before the immigration ban went into place. Anyway, Ali found himself in unfamiliar territory.  He spoke very little English, had darker skin than most of the other children, and he was the only Muslim in the class.  He didn’t however, find himself alone.  A young man named Langston immediately befriended him.  It almost brought tears to my eyes when my son Russ shared this story with me last week, because, you see, Langston is my grandson. (Grandpas get to brag sometimes) But the point here is that Lang knew nothing about their religious differences, or immigration bans, or administrative fear-mongering; he just saw an opportunity to befriend someone who was alone.

That’s salt.  But what about light? If salt is the doing then Light is the being. Jesus says we are to be a beacon on a hill, a light that’s not hidden but displayed for all to see. Now, I don’t know, I think being “light” might be a little trickier. Being light might be a little bit further outside our comfort zone. Because being light in this sense means setting an example for others to see. This is where commissioning comes into play.  As God’s light, we are called to invite others to experience Divine grace. As a people of faith, we are commissioned to speak the truth, even if the truth is unpopular.  As disciples of Christ, we are challenged to be light by standing against injustice and working toward a day when faith overcomes fear and peace replaces war. This is the core, the very heart and soul, of the change that Christ brought to the law. Understanding the law as gracious lead him to challenge the legalistic and uncaring religious system of his day and he invites us to continue in that same vein as we participate in acts of social justice in ours.

Theologian N. T. Wright has a valuable insight on this.  He posits that the real message behind Jesus’ sermon on the mount was to issue “a challenge to Israel to be Israel.”[iii] And today, I think Christ’s challenge to us, in our time, is for the church to be the church.  What does that look like? Salt and light. Doing the mission and ministry by loving, caring, reaching out, touching the untouchables and loving those who may feel unlovable.  And at the same time being church by living Christ’s example of justice in our everyday lives. And if we can live-into this invitation, this commissioning, if we can continue doing the work and being the heart of church, we, as a congregation, as a community, as a people of faith, will have answered God’s call to be salt and light.  May it be so. Amen.

 

[i] Rev. William Carter. Following the Kiss. (DayOne.org) 1999

[ii] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, (textweek.com) 2014.

[iii] N. T. Wright.  Quote by Edwin Chr. Van Driel (Feasting on the Word, Year A. Vol. 1) 2012

You Knew It Was A Snake When You Picked It Up

Matthew 5:1-12 (The Beatitudes)

There’s an old piece of southern wisdom that I picked up a couple of weeks ago that I feel I need to share with you this morning. And that piece of wisdom is: “You knew it was a snake when you picked it up.”

Now, there’s two ways to apply this statement.  The first example.  When you tell your son or daughter that the burner on the stove is hot and they touch it anyway and burn their finger.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m probably not overly inclined to extend a great amount of sympathy in such a case. “You knew it was a snake when you picked it up” What we’re really saying here is that you should have known better and now you’re suffering the consequences of your actions.  That application may be a little judgmental, but sometimes necessary. It’s kind of like the phrase, “you made your bed now you have to lie in it.”

There’s another way to take this statement, however, one that is less judgmental.            “You knew it was a snake when you picked it up” can refer to an action taken with full knowledge of the consequences, but the action is taken anyway because the individual understands that the action is necessary.

A good example of “picking up a snake” and understanding the possible consequences was exhibited in the civil rights movement. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew there would be repercussions when he began to lead others in a non-violent movement protesting segregation and the mistreatment of the African American community in our nation.  King understood the consequences; he understood that this movement could cost him is very life. But he did it anyway because he knew that the action was necessary. He once wrote: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”1 And maybe even more pointedly, in his famous “I Have a Dream” sermon he said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”2

And this statement, in some form anyway, has always been present in the Church.  We can look at our religious beginnings and see how the inspiration of Christ moved so many to action. Men and women of faith across the history of the Church stood up for the core values and principles of the gospel. These Church fathers and mothers loved God and neighbor by challenging injustice, both within and outside the walls of their sanctuary. They championed causes that benefitted the least of God’s children and took positions that were, as Dr. King suggested, “neither safe, nor politic, nor popular.” And these positions often cost them their lives. Today, we call these champions of the faith Christian martyrs.

And this is where we encounter the beatitudes today. The historical Jesus, the living-breathing man who walked this earth, understood that there would be consequences and repercussions if he stood up against the religious system of his day.  A system that generated discrimination, kept the outsider, outside; the insider, rich; and the poor, poor. But he did it anyway. Jesus stood up for what was right. And there, on the mountainside, he began a movement that would reach across religious and social boundries; a movement that would ultimately cost him his life. Time and again in the gospels, Jesus said to his inner circle, the twelve disciples, “ya know guys, my days on this earth are numbered, so you’re going to need to carry on what I’ve started, even, if the cost is your life.”

And in preparation for the inevitable consequences of choosing to follow, Jesus sat down on the side of a mountain, that’s why we call this teaching the sermon on the mount, and began tell his followers about some realities they were going to face. He began with what’s called the Beatitudes, illuminated for us in Matthew 5:1-12

But before we get into the text, I wanted you to hear the Beatitudes today from a fresh perspective.  So today’s lesson comes to us from The Message by Eugene Peterson.  I chose this dynamic translation of the Bible because it re-imagines and re-frames the words of Jesus in such a way that it really clarifies the original meaning for us.

Anyway, in our passage for today, Jesus said to the gathered crowd, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.  “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.”

Now, first of all, these are wonderful words of hope, aren’t they? And that’s no accident. In verses 1-7, Jesus seeks to build a foundation of hope and encouragement upon which the rest of the Beatitudes will rest.  He’s kind of saying, “Even when you feel sad, when you’re struggling, desperate; you don’t walk alone. When you become a part of this movement, God is with you every step of the way.” These words are finally an assurance of God’s presence.

Now, if verses 1-7 set the stage, then verse 8 is the centerpiece. It’s the crux of the meaning of this text and it serves as a transition to the final section.  Verse 8 reads, “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.” In other words, when we get it right on the inside, when we come to understand that God is God and we’re not God, it’s then that we can truly begin to participate in serving the outside world.  If it’s all about me and my little bubble, addressing the challenges and hardships of the outside world would seem impossible.  But God’s world is much larger and it’s more loving, more holistic; it’s more genuine. On my own it’s an impossible task, but “…with God all things are possible.”

And this is important to understand.  It’s important because we’re coming up to the “you knew it was a snake when you picked it up” part.  1-7 reassure us that God is always going to walk with us, verse 8 encourages us to depend on that fact over and above trusting in ourselves because we’re going to need God. Verses 9-12 spell out the actions and consequences of following Jesus.

 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight,” [Jesus says,] “That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. [And] “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but on the surface this doesn’t sound like too much fun. But that’s the challenge that Jesus lays before us.  The challenge to love God and neighbor no matter what the consequence gets to the very core of the virtues and values that unite us as people of faith.  With one voice we can speak up for the outcast, for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for those on the margins. With open minds and hearts, we can choose to protect the beauty and wonder and the interconnectedness of God’s creation; the ecosystems and the watersheds, and all the creatures that surround us.  And when we seek to discover the very best of ourselves, when we open ourselves up and accept the consequences of loving God by tending to humanity and creation, rather than destroying or cutting down, we move a little closer to God.

That’s the bottom line of this text.  It’s finally not about celebrating being poor, rather it’s about being blessed with the experience of poverty so we can know the poverty of others.  It not about being empty, but rather experiencing emptiness so we can become filled with God.  Do you see what I’m getting at here? When there’s less of “us” our worries our presuppositions, our stuff, our self-righteousness- there’s more room for God. And when we’re filled with God – we can’t help but spill over with a desire to share the grace and love and fullness that we feel.  And it’s a fullness that no criticism or disapproval can drain.

Now, I wish I could tell you that the path will always be clear and flat and easy.  But I can’t do that.  There will be tough times, there will be moments when it would be easier to let that snake slitter away.  There’s division in our nation and in Christianity.  Rifts that seem impossible to repair.  And as a community, we will not agree on the best way forward, but that should not deter us from moving ahead anyway.  My friends, our diversity is our strength and we can find unity if we respect one another.  If we, like Jesus, see all people as equally valuable in the eyes of God.  Let me say that again because it’s not the loudest voice in our nation today.  All people are valuable in the heart of God. Period.

And I know, that’s a grand statement. But consider the radical positions Jesus took on the place of women and children and the disabled in society.  Think about the controversy he stirred up by healing and then affirming the faith of those from other religions. Consider the hardships he endured because he stood up to the systems of his day; the religious and secular systems that perpetuated and normalized poverty.  Jesus not only preached the beatitudes, but with snake in hand, he lived them.

“Count yourselves blessed,” he said, “when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight, that’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. [And] “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.

And that’s our challenge for today.  To be a voice of reason, of conscience; of ethics and integrity, and yes, we can even be a voice of “discomfort” to those spewing hatred, and violence, and calling for division among God’s people. God is Still-Speaking in the world today.  God is speaking with a whisper of kindness and with shouts of justice. But most of all, God speaks of peace and unity, of grace and compassion, God finally speaks words of love

May it be so, Amen.

 

[1] A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches.                                                                                                      Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Washington ed., (HarperOne 1986)

 

[2] I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World.                                                                                         Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Washington. Ed., Foreword by Coretta Scott King (HarperOne 1987)