The Vision Beautiful

Matthew 5:1-14

What was Matthew’s beautiful vision? What was it about Christ’s message that touched him so deeply; so deeply that he was compelled to offer this mountainside teaching as a centerpiece of his gospel, a centerpiece of the early part anyway? What was it about this Jesus?

Perhaps, it would be wise for us to consider these questions within Matthew’s context. He was speaking to a primarily Jewish audience. By that I mean his faith community was comprised of people who were immigrants or first-generation adherents to this fledgling faith called Christianity. They were immigrants from the Jewish faith and like most immigrants they brought many of their customs, values, and traditions with them. Simply put, most of them had lived under the Law of Moses. So, one of the challenges for Matthew, as he spoke to this community, was to both respect the tradition and communicate this “new way of being” that Jesus had preached. Remember Jesus said that didn’t come to abolish the Law, but rather to fulfill it. In other words, to reimagine the Law of Moses in a more compassionate, more liberating way.

So, Matthew, I think, had to walk kind of a fine line between respecting the tradition and expressing the world-altering message of Jesus. And in my opinion, he does this brilliantly! I say that because what Matthew presents here in the Beatitudes is a set of teachings that turn the world’s values upside down. The Beatitudes declared that the poor in spirit, our version of the Bible says “hopeless;” the hopeless, the humble, the compassionate, the peacemakers; these are the ones who are truly blessed. The world, however, favored the self-sufficient, the assertive, the power brokers. Might made right! But the people whom the world saw as pitiful or mournful or suffering under persecution; these are the very people that Jesus claims are truly joyful”[I]

Now, I would be willing to bet that some if not most of Matthew’s audience were living in poverty. So, it’s not hard to imagine that this understanding of life and faith, this “joy in poverty,” might have been a little counterintuitive to those folks. Heck, it’s still counterintuitive to us today. Yes, we’ve all heard this text many times and we’ve come to accept the premise that Jesus lifts up the downtrodden; that he champions the marginalized; that he came to liberate those who are in bondage. We’ve heard all of these things time and again, but what do they really mean? Is it really a blessing to be poor?

I don’t think that’s right. So, what’s really going on here? Well, consider this example. A number of years ago I accepted a call, my first call actually, to St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Geneva Iowa. Now, I think I need to paint a picture of the Geneva church before we continue. It’s country church in the truest sense. The church building, parsonage, and cemetery sit alone among acre upon acre of row crops and I’ve become fond of saying that our nearest neighbors were 3,000 hogs. We were in the country. Now, this part of north-centeral Iowa is a more traditional area and the church is a reflection that culture. And while there were many, many good people and wonderful traditions in that congregation, one of the challenges we faced was how to understand our role in the wider, and less traditional, mission of the United Church of Christ. Figuring out how we might “do mission” differently seemed to be one of our looming questions.

Well, that question got answered a couple of years in. You see, I was at a local clergy gathering one day, when one of my constituents offered an opportunity to join with an organization called Outreach Africa. The mission of Outreach Africa was to gather a whole bunch of people on a Saturday to package meals for those who were hungry in Africa. It was a huge event. Hundreds of people came, six or eight assembly lines were formed, and tens-of-thousands of meals were packaged, boxed, and shipped.

In that first year, however, St. Peter’s didn’t participate. Why? Because of the pastor’s short-sightedness. I didn’t think anyone from our church would be interested in going, so, I never even presented this as a mission opportunity.

Now, fast forward to the next year. I was once again given the chance to participate, so I decided that this might be something the youth group would be able to do. And on what we called “Mission Sunday” I set up a projector and screen and I showed a power-point presentation about Outreach Africa’s mission. I shared the struggles of these folks a world away and we were all especially moved to learn that when children had nothing else to eat, that would eat mud just to fill their stomach.

But here’s the connection back to the Beatitudes. In the weeks between the presentation and the actual food-packaging event, this whole mission project caught fire. And not only did all of the youth and their parents come to package food, 30 or so people, about 40 other members of the congregation showed up. Our little country church, St. Peter’s, had the largest number of volunteers per-capita than anyone else. And it didn’t end on that fall Saturday. A lay-leader of the congregation came up to me afterward and wondered why our church couldn’t host such a packaging event?

In my estimation, that single event changed the vision of the congregation. Because, you see, if we view the Beatitudes through the lens of social justice, through our actions of reaching out beyond ourselves, it’s then that we’re invited to seek and find the action of God in the poor, the mourners, the persecuted, and the peacemakers. Their lives now, in the present, hold the blessing and transforming power of God, as they live and struggle for justice, peace, and wholeness in their world. [ii]

Do you see what I’m driving at here? The poor aren’t blessed because their poor, poverty isn’t a virtue. Jesus says happy are the poor, the hopeless, because within their struggle there exists the opportunity to demonstrate our humanity by struggling with those who are on the margins. And here’s the kicker. At different points in time we’re the hopeless ones that Jesus speaks of here. I would be willing to bet the house, that there have been times in your life when you were the one struggling, when you were ashamed, when you were the one who was grieving, when you were “poor in spirit,” and in that moment, my friends, you were blessed! Blessed because there was someone who was willing to demonstrate their humanity, their compassion, their love, to alleviate your suffering. It’s a both/and situation. We’re, at the same time, the caregiver and the one in need of care; we’re the bearer of the Light of God and the one standing in the shadows. We’re the peacemakers and we’re the ones being persecuted for taking that stance. We’re the sharers of God’s love and forgiveness and grace, and at the same time, we’re the ones who stand in need of God’s love, and grace, and forgiveness, every day. But, in all of this, because of our response within and to the human condition, Jesus says, that we will be called, all of us, the “Children of God.”

One more thing. God is the bedrock of our faith. Without our faith in God as the ‘Source of Life and the Source of Love,’ to quote Bishop Sprong, and the “Source of Being,” to quote Paul Tillich, we would be just another social club. Not that there’s anything wrong with social clubs or the good work they do. But as a people of faith, as a community of faith, our reason for practicing peace and seeking social justice comes from a different Source. And the beatitudes are meant to point us toward that Source as we live-into a “beautiful vision” of justice for all.

My friends, God is calling us to follow Christ into the world to engage in a lifetime of faithful, creative, courageous, community-building love. That was, in a nutshell, Matthew’s “vision beautiful.” Might that vision become our vision as well. May it be so. Amen and Amen.

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[i] Thomas Long, Westminster Bible Companion (found at www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

[ii] Susan Blain The Vision Beautiful (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

Infinite Possibilities

Baptism of Christ Sunday

Introduction to the Text

Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday. The Sunday when we officially move from the Christmas story into the life and teachings of Jesus. The time of year when we leave the manger, Magi, and myrrh   behind, at least for the moment, and begin to look at the adult version of Jesus. And every year, this happens through the story of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. And today is no exception. But there’s always seems to be a lingering question about his baptism, one that I’ve heard more than any other: “If Jesus was without sin, then why did he need to be baptized?” That’s actually a very perceptive question. A question that leads us to look beyond just forgiveness and into a deeper understanding of baptism. Hear now, once again, the story of the Baptism of Christ.

Scripture Reading                                                          Matthew 3:13-17

Now, I’m going to begin today by giving you some contextual background to the narrative that we just heard. Hear these additional words from the second writer in the Book of Isaiah.

But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations. He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public. He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice. He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land.

I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.

My friends, there are places in our world that are so dark that most of us really don’t want to look at them. Nations where law and order are so broken down that people’s lives are in danger just because they belong to the wrong faith or the wrong political party or the wrong tribe. Cities where crime is so rampant that even murder becomes just another part of life. We hear lies and deception, hate-filled rhetoric and threats to our very being all the time. It’s hard to even watch the news anymore. Sometimes it all seems hopeless.

A number of years ago, I had the pleasure to meet a man we’ll call Dave. Dave suffered from some form of autism perhaps or a mental illness, and as a result, was a person of diminished capacity. He was an adult man, living on his own, with the mind of about a 12-year-old. Dave was often homeless and often confused. Now, I don’t tell you this to cut him down or to diminish him in any way, but to give you an idea of Dave’s struggle. Anyway, I met Dave at free dinner that was served once a month by a large downtown UCC church for those in need and for anyone who wanted to share a meal. Dave was always the first one there and he was always ready to share with you everything one could possibly want to know about lightbulbs. Yes, I said lightbulbs. He was fascinated with lightbulbs. He studied up on them, collected them, working or not. I have no idea where he kept them all, but lightbulbs were his thing. Now, the other fact about Dave is that he was not only the first one there, he was the first one to help set up tables, the first one to help clear plates, the first one to greet newcomers. And it struck me one day that this “collector of lightbulbs” was really being the Light of Christ in the church. In his own and unique way, Dave was being God’s Light to the world.

As I read the passage from Isaiah, the one that I just shared, I thought once again of Dave and the hope that someone like him inspires. Isaiah says that God will appoint someone to bring light into the dark places of this world. He speaks of “a servant of the God” who would come to right the wrongs; who would bring God’s justice. This is of course Isaiah’s vision of what a Messiah might look like, but isn’t this also what we are called to look like? Are we not called to be like Dave and bring God’s light into the world as best as we are able?

Now, I know I’ve said this many times before, but I think our post-modern idea of justice is very different than that of Bible. When we think about justice, most of the secular world envisions something that happens in a courtroom with a judge and a jury. The world sees Justice is as arbitrating disputes and determining guilt or innocence and handing down punishments for crimes.

But justice in the Bible has a very different meaning. God’s justice is about feeding the hungry, setting prisoners free, recovery of sight to the blind; in a biblical understanding of justice, those who have been struck down are lifted up, and the immigrants and the widows and orphans have someone to watch over them.  Simply put—God’s justice is the light that shines into all the dark places of the world and makes it possible for all people to thrive equally.

And It’s important to notice the way in which the “servant” in Isaiah establishes this kind of justice. The prophet says it this way: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench”.  In other words, “He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant.”[I]

You see, God’s justice doesn’t take place through vengeance but forgiveness.  God’s justice doesn’t take place through violence but compassion.  God’s justice doesn’t take place through hostility but mercy.  It’s a justice that leads to peace.  And in order to achieve this kind of divine justice we have to employ God’s ways instead of ours.

And in our Gospel text it says in essence that “God’s work of putting things right throughout all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.”[ii]  In a very real sense, Christ’s baptism was making a public declaration that he was going to take the side of God’s justice.  He was going to set about promoting God’s work of righting the wrongs and lifting the burdens from the oppressed.  He was going to shine the light of God into all the dark places of the world.

And guess what. That’s exactly what he did.  And that’s what we’re called to do as well. My friends, by sharing in Christ’s baptism through our own, we have taken on the same calling, accepted the same challenge, the same risk, the same covenant: a covenant to shine the Light of God; God’s peace and God’s compassion and God’s mercy into all the dark places of this world. [iii]

One final thought this morning. When we celebrate a baptism here in our church, in the liturgy, I ask all of you to “remember your baptism.” Now, I’m not talking about the actual pouring of water over your head, (many of you were infants at that time) But what I am asking you to do is to remember the meaning of your baptism. A meaning that includes the things we’ve talked about here today. A meaning that starts by establishing a covenant, a covenant that continues to grow and to develop into a relationship with a community of faith. And within that community we share in things like forgiveness, like grace, like compassion, but it still doesn’t end there. Our baptismal calling as a community is to participate in the present reign of God by shining the radiant Light of God’s Justice outward, to, as the last chapter in Matthew says, “…to all the ends of the earth.”

My friends, as we continue our journey from Christmas through the Season of Epiphany, may the Light of God’s Grace shine into the very depths of your being and the Light of God’s Justice shine forth through your words, your actions, your life. And may each of us, in our own unique way, be a “Dave.” May it be so.

Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Eugene Peterson The Message from Isaiah 42

[ii] Ibid Peterson

[iii] Alan Brehm.  Shining Light into Darkness. (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2014

 

Another Road

Epiphany Sunday

Christmas has passed, the New Year’s Eve festivities are over, and now we’re left with the glitter, wrapping paper, empty boxes, and perhaps a few empty hearts. For some people, the holidays have been a delightful time of love and giving. Others may look back on the week with a little relief that it’s over. Are we allowed to say that? Can we be honest and admit that sometimes these big days are not as joyful in real life as we want them to be?

But in the passage that you’re about to hear, John reminds us that our big days and calendars are really of little importance to the God who created us. God existed before time itself. So, while we human beings may lift up one day over another, God is consistently present in every day.[I]

Read John 1:1-9 & 14 here.
Now, today’s reading, taken from the prologue to the Gospel According to John, begins with those famous words we all know so well: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  This is where John’s gospel begins–in the beginning. This is John’s nativity story. There are no shepherds, or angels, or a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.  In this nativity story, this Christmas story, John takes us back to the beginning.  He echoes the words from the Genesis: In beginning-ness God created; God moved over the chaos and darkness and said, “Let there be light.” And in John’s nativity story, from the very beginning, there was the Logos, the Word.  The God who moved over the face of the deep, over the darkness, who spoke and said, “let there be light,” this same God became flesh and blood and dwelt among us.  John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people, ALL people! And, this Light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not extinguish it.”

Wow. There’s a lot going on here. So, let’s pause here for a moment and unpack some this. First of all, theologically speaking, Christmas is about a transcendent God who comes near, becomes immanent, incarnate, God-with-us, Emmanuel. Now, sometimes we talk about the transcendence of God, a God who’s mysterious and unknowable, beyond comprehension–which is true–but here in this text, God the Creator takes on flesh and becomes one of us and lives among us. And to extend John’s metaphor, in the midst of our darkness, in the midst of the chaos of our lives, Jesus comes announcing life and not death. Later in John’s gospel, we’ll hear Jesus say, “I come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” And it’s through this abundance that God has invited us to allow the light of the Sacred to shine forth in our lives and through our actions.[ii]

In his book, Original Blessing, theologian Matthew Fox writes: “We enter a broken, torn and sinful world–that is for sure.  But we do not enter as blotches on existence; we burst onto the scene as ‘original blessings.'”[iii]  And, oh, how we need to hear that.  The incarnation, God becoming flesh, has shown us a different way of seeing life and living in the world. It has shown us that the creation is good, that the world we live in is good, that our bodies are good, that we are indeed, “original blessings.”  And as original blessings, we are called to live with love and justice with all that is part of the created order; we are called to be fully human, fully alive. Matthew Fox goes on to say, “Being alive is not the same as going shopping or making a nest in which to escape the suffering of others.  Living has something to do with love of life, and the love of other’s lives and the other’s rights to life and dignity.”[iv]

And this is where I believe we find ourselves today. Jesus, the whole concept of a Messiah actually, is intended to show us the nature of God and how we should respond because that nature. Do you see what I’m driving at here? John says, we have received from God’s fullness, grace upon grace. “Grace upon grace.” This phrase, I think, needs to set the tone as we embark upon a new year. A new year when grace will be so desperately needed. We need God’s grace as we continue to struggle with divisions and resentments, controversies and discontent. We need grace as we remain immersed in and surrounded by endless election rhetoric; rhetoric that’s intended to further divide rather than unite. And even as many of us enjoy a stable economy, some of our neighbors stand in need of our commitment to be gracious. Neighbors who still struggle with deep economic troubles. Things like under-employment, the rising cost of housing, and a lack of affordable healthcare have left millions of our fellow citizens behind, still wanting, still caught in a web of poverty.

But perhaps our greatest challenge as people of faith and as a nation, is to understand that this abundance of grace, that this grace upon grace, is not meant just for us. From the very beginning of creation, God intended that grace be shared among all of God’s beloved creation. John says here in our text, that Jesus came as a light to all people. Not just some people, not just religious people, not just people who think and act and believe as I think they should, but ALL people.

My friends, if we as a society could find it within ourselves in 2020 to grasp and then live-into this understanding of grace; a grace that is for all people, a grace that is immanent, a grace that is fully expressed in our acts of faith and kindness and love; if we could begin to practice this kind of grace, if we could become an original blessing to others, might that be a first step on the path to peace; on our quest for justice? Might that finally be the Light of which John speaks? I don’t know the answer to these questions; I don’t even know if we can find this kind of grace within ourselves; but, wouldn’t it be amazing to try?

Amen & amen.

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[i] Lillian Daniel In the Beginning (www.ucc.org/stillspeakingdevotional) 2020

[ii] William McCord Thigpen III. Our Hearts Belong (www.Day1.org) 2009

[iii] Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, Santa Fe, Bear & Co., 1983, p. 47.

[iv] Ibid. Fox