Sunday, January 29, 2017

Blessed in the Kingdom

“When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
“You’re blessed…”‬‬ (Eugene Peterson, Message translation MSG)

The crowds, growing larger and larger and the needs being greater and greater, Jesus takes those learning to be like him and willing to be his companions. They have committed themselves to his inner circle, even though I suspect they said yes without having any real idea what they signed up for. He takes them away from the crowds to a quiet place and speaks to them as his companions. 
The gospel of Matthew tells us what it was like there on the ground by the time they follow him up the hill. Here’s end of the preceding chapter:
 “Jesus… went all over Galilee…Word got around the entire Roman province of Syria. People brought anybody with an ailment, whether mental, emotional, or physical. 
Anybody and everybody. 
And Jesus healed them, one and all. 
Momentum gathered  as crowds came from the “Ten Towns” across the lake, 
Ten towns’ worth of people and then on top of that, 
others up from Jerusalem and Judea, still others from across the Jordan.” (MSG)
Try to envision it- all of those people- their longing, desperations, and anxiousness. 
Hungry, thirsty, needing. 
Imagine the sound, the smells, the sight of a mass of mentally, physically and emotionally unwell people. This wave of humanity, insistent and pushing in. 

Imagine having to try to manage that scene, for those learning to be like the Teacher. Imagine them wondering why on earth had they just followed him without knowing what it would mean? Who on earth can sustain this?
And it’s all a little much because Jesus never puts up a limitation.

I think Jesus knows how his followers are feeling and leads them to take a moment out of the noise of the crowds, perhaps well aware they are ready to break.
Because he has a word for them. 
A word for those who are perhaps themselves feeling poor in spirit, 
Maybe they’ve been berated for failing to produce the messiah soon enough for somebody.Traveling from place to place in the churn and drain. And the sacrifice. 
“How much can we really endure? How can we be expected to care for so many?”

You see, in surge of the crowd, it’s hard to remember the message- the one that Jesus proclaimed as soon as he began his ministry- Reorient your view. 
The kingdom of God is here. NOW

I think that's why when Jesus took his followers who were committed but weary away, the first thing he said to them, when perhaps they were wondering if they were going to be lectured was, "You're blessed.”
They hear what they need to hear
Before they go on to hear about being salt and light
Before “Go and Do Likewise,” 
They need one thing:
“Blessed are you”
“When you feel at the end of your rope
When you feel that you have given up way too much that you hold dear”

Jesus speaks first not to what we do but who we are. It’s part pep talk and part revelation.Because Jesus knows we embrace what we hear most. 

When we’re surrounded by voices saying we should be at the end of our rope or shouldn't have to give so much. That we are too little or it’s all too much. When we only focus on this, what we look for is someone that will level the playing field, settle the score or find the answer elsewhere. 
Jesus knows and  isn’t just throwing around a cheap phrase in this blessing- he’s not ignoring the stresses and strains of his followers. He’s naming and claiming the things they suffer with and through. 
Naming them and claiming God’s greater authority over them.
Jesus is not ignoring suffering, or weariness, or grief or struggle. 
He’s showing us that God’s kingdom comes to re-shape the view and to give power to change and strength to resist the temptation to focus upon what we struggle to see. 
When you feel there’s nothing left- Blessed are you. 
“when there is less of you there is more of God’s rule.
You’re embraced by the one who holds you dear.” (MSG)

What makes this blessing so beautiful is that it is spoken without conditions.
What grace!
“God's grace can be hard to recognize perhaps because we know ourselves too well to feel worthy of that grace…(in) our faults and limitations, our insecurities and failures. Knowing that God knows us even better we may find it hard to believe God loves us unconditionally.”(Lose)
I imagine at least one of those disciples had just been dismissive or insulting to one of the many needy looking for healing. Thinking they are going to hear a correction, met instead with 
“you are blessed.”
As hard as it might be to imagine now hear that God loves others and blesses others we struggle with unconditionally too. 
But wait, that’s not how it works. “We're used to paying for our mistakes, paving our own way, toeing the line and reaping the consequences when we don't, and so it may not only be unexpected, but downright unsettling and nearly inconceivable to imagine- that God behaves differently, 
desiring to shower one and all with blessing apart from anything any of us has done, earned, or deserved.
The gospel of Matthew is quite clear -- Jesus isn't setting up conditions or terms, he’s just plain blessing people. All kinds of people. All kinds of down-and-out, extremely vulnerable, and at the bottom of the ladder people. 
To proclaim that God regularly shows up in mercy and blessing just where you least expect God to be -- with the poor rather than the rich, those who are mourning rather than celebrating, the meek and the peacemakers rather than the strong and victorious. (With those on the other side of whatever limit we want to create). This is not where citizens of the ancient world look for God and, quite frankly, it's not we in our own world do either. (Until we soak in this blessing, what we don’t see is Jesus, or the changed view of the kingdom drawn near). 
Kingdom vision is hard to sustain. Only when we hear “you’re blessed” can we  take up the invitation to continue as Jesus’ companions in all the struggles to come, including when others will put us down for the ridiculous idea of blessing any and everyone. I'm sure the disciples wanted to make it more manageable and the needy feared they had to make sure they got what they came for. Surely these people can wait. 
Jesus healed them, one and all and said "Blessed are you. You have a place in the kingdom." 
And ‘(Since) God shows up here, blessing the weak and the vulnerable, then God will be everywhere, showering all creation and its inhabitants with blessing.’” (David Lose)
“Blessed are you” is also an invitation to continue the journey of Jesus. 
To be who God calls us to be, resting in the power of the giver of the blessing.
Let that blessing spill over and flow for you and beyond you. 
Because God is in the blessing business. We need to hear this often. 
You are blessed.
It’s hard not to not fall back into the voices of the crowd
So we gather here. We absolutely need the hear the gospel over and over again. 
So we can then continue with Jesus- as companions in all of the hills and valleys.
Full of the blessing- Eugene Peterson writes, 
“When you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.” AND…
“You’re blessed 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.” (MSG)
Blessed sisters and brothers, this is God’s kingdom come. Where all have a place. May we be companions with Jesus to make it so. 

Cultivate a Life in Common

When I was still a young newlywed, someone gave me this picture called “House Rules.”
If you sleep on it, make it up.
If you wear it, hang it up.
If you drop it, pick it up.
If you eat out of it, wash it.
If you spill it, wipe it up.
If you open it, close it.
If you empty it, fill it up.
These are basically the “pick up your mess” rules the ones most parents say over and again. Upon reflection Michael and I don’t think that sign had any effect at our house.
Then come the last three phrases:
If it rings, answer it.
If it howls, feed it.
If it cries, love it.
These rules probably most need to be posted because often our tendency is to act in our own self interest. These three are not “deal with your own mess” rules. These are love rules for a life together.
The kind of thing that Jesus is talking about when he tells people to repent- or specifically in the gospel of Matthew- reorient your world view.
To reflect and reveal God- who is light and salvation, not fear.

When the kingdom draws near, the view should change.

Separation should end.
Because God’s world view is broad.
By the time the apostle Paul is building churches, it seems people still struggle with God’s world view. I guess we all do.
Paul writes to a group of very divided people, attempting to counsel a community  trying to navigate political divisions and quarrels. Within the church they were arguing about who was the most authoritative or best suited to be the leader of the Church. Much of this conflict could be traced to divisions over  politics, cultures, languages and by the gap between wealth and poverty. Where what was once Greece was now Greeks and Romans and many others from around the Mediterranean. Caesar was God. and the majority of people worshipped the idols of power and might and getting ahead was utmost. With all kinds of groups of people, languages, laws and customs and a “get ahead” mentality,  Corinth was a dog-eat-dog world, in perpetual competition.
The Church had come to reflect the city itself.  In Paul’s view, they had lost sight of the gospel message that he had first preached to them. He claims that their conduct showed that they were still living by the measure of Rome.
Their divisions are growing.
Paul writes- I appeal to you-
grow differently.
Christ calls us to cultivate a life in common. Because we share this life.
While I don’t think we need this message in our life in this building, I do think there is a word for us as church in the world.
The message of the empire is often the total opposite of  Christ’s message. And it can become easy to let some other force or worldview govern our actions and life, instead of  God.

Paul warns that divisiveness will rip the house apart. We can grow together or fall apart. At this beginning of new government in our country and a time of many world concerns, Christ has a word for us as we live as church in the world.

Grow differently. Cultivate a life together.

Someone shared this image recently- that we can be tumbleweeds that dry up and blow around, never rooted.  Or we can be redwoods. The redwoods roots are not deep but they grow out and intertwine. That's how redwoods stand tall and live long. Not by dividing but putting it all in together. In all we face as people in Christ's kingdom, we should  cultivate that kind of life in common. That with Christ as our center we can risk being redwoods.

I think the only way we can remember this being rooted together, whenever things around us become so divided is by remembering our baptism (1:17).
In baptism, we become a part of God’s house, through Christ’s resurrected body. By remembering our baptism, we remember our death to one reality and inauguration into another—we remember that we, in truth, belong to God and GOD’S kingdom view.

This is what really unites us and what we should reflect. Our one-ness in the death and resurrection that we experience with Christ in our baptism. The same one-ness that tells us to cast out that net wide to look for those who need the gospel, including all those calling out, howling or crying who long to be heard and answered, fed and loved.
And this looks like foolishness.

“Paul emphasizes this foolishness to combat the social norms the Corinthians and all of us have been conditioned to believe are ultimate. He juxtaposes the cross against that world view saying  “remember everything you built your life around? Those … values of  wealth, and power? Forget all of that.”
Paul calls the church to die completely to the dominant values that surround them, and, embrace the radical reality ushered in by Christ. And live in the unity of Christ.

The gospel is  the radical good news that God in Christ has freed us all from what society demands we be;
it’s about figuring out how to live together as a community in light and in this life-altering message;
and it is about spreading that good news to others.
That everyone is a part of  the beautiful unity of difference which can happen in Christ.

Yet, unity in Christ also means that certain things are non-negotiable.
We are to condemn as Christ did the forces of oppression and injustice.
Being united in these instances means fighting and struggling alongside those struggling in the darkness, just as Christ did long ago. The Corinthians were trying to play by the same rules and operate under the same values as the rest of the world that pardoned the exploitation, discrimination, violence, and oppression of people who were different.

In contrast to these divisive values, Paul writes, we are to be united in the foolishness of the cross—that same foolishness Jesus embraced each day on earth as he sat with the poor and ate with the despised of society. To cultivate this view of living is work. To cultivate our life in common we need God’s help to continually pull out the weeds of prejudice and mistrust, fear and stubbornness that breed division.
We need God’s help to nurture others and not  simply telling them “everything will be OK” or to "get over it." To say instead- I am here.

Cultivating this life requires uprooting the stones of assuming the worst, it requires trusting others we see as in different groups also belong in God’s house as children that God desires to grow. And it calls for disrupting the practice of sowing the salt of discord and chaos that kill life. And to live instead in a new life. Because when the kingdom draws near, the view should change.

And through baptism, we are God’s priests in this world- living among God’s faithful people; hearing the word of God and sharing in the Lord’s Supper; proclaiming the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; serving all people following the example of Jesus; and striving for justice and peace in all the earth. And we are called to claim our sisters and brothers in God’s world and treat them as family. My prayer for our nation and our world is that we will together see this is a time to forget “us and them”, and start being “we.” To cultivate growing in a life in common.

Wherever and with whomever this seems hardest, may our prayers start there.

Let us pray:
Lord of all nations, a new President governs in this country. Legislators and others at all levels begin to work anew. And we, your people are walking into a new chapter in this part of your kingdom. Bless them. For some this is a time of great celebration, for others it is a time of great uncertainty. Guide us. Help us to remember that amid all the changes, your love is steadfast and your strength never fails. Turn our eyes to you and guide this nation by your Spirit to go forward in justice and freedom, so we may work to provide all your people the blessings of well being and harmony.
Almighty God, we lift before you all who govern. May those who hold power understand that it is a trust from you to be used, not for personal glory or profit, but for the service of all people. Empower us to defend our liberty and fill us with wisdom to work together for justice and peace. Where there is good help us to affirm it. Where there is wrong, give us courage to address it knowing that you will provide us with the wisdom we need.
God of all, you have created us in such wonderful diversity. Free us from prejudices, guard us from serving our fears. Help us to see you in the face of all people. Help us to break down the walls that separate us and teach us to work to accomplish your purposes- to affirm the dignity of all and to work to protect the most vulnerable. This is not the work of a day, or the work of only a few, or for only a few. This is our common purpose. Drive us from cynicism, selfishness and corruption and give us the grace to live together and to work together for unity and peace.

And in all things help us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with you. May we work to bring forth your kingdom and give you alone the glory. Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Horizon of Possibility

At some time we’ve all felt it- that moment that feels like we’ve reached the limit, we’ve hit a wall, we’re at the edge. The people in Isaiah knew it- in exile, long suffering, looking for some sign. They  feel like the words we hear- crushed reeds- once strong, now bruised, bent, trampled, at the breaking point. They should be able to stand but they might not. Some people who felt like dim wicks- this is the acolyte story- you light the candle and it might light- they’re trying with all their might to shine and be a light. But they might be Sputtering. They should glow, but they just might not. And The people on the coastlands, there at the edge, are hanging on and waiting for God to give a word. Please.
And the prophet tells them- “Here comes my chosen, my delight, the bearer of my Spirit, the bringer of justice, who will not falter, nor be discouraged. Here is my servant.”
And there in the midst of God’s declaration of freedom, and light and release and the new thing God is now declaring. There right in the middle of this awesome announcement is the reality-The coastlands await his teaching. At the edges people wait.
And here God declares that the edge we see in front of us, is not the end.
It is instead the horizon of possibility.
New things I declare, says the Lord.
The same God who declared creation into existence, who spoke the heavens into being and who breathed life into what looked like just dust. God speaks a radiant and glorious word.  And in the midst of this- the coastlands await his teaching. Those who feel distant are waiting for God’s word to be revealed.

The people in Jesus’ day were at their limits too and willing to trek out through the wilderness to a river in the hope that this man John had the words they longed for that would change things. Then Jesus shows up there at the edge with them and begins to redefine the limits. Showing that what we see as a boundary to be accepted, put up with even, God sees as a barrier to remove-
and it is divine necessity to do so.
Jesus immerses himself here- to bring a new vision where none had been seen possible.
Jesus shows us at the edge of the Jordan River. Having been born into and walked through the same hot, dusty, exhausting way of all who have been coming to see John the Baptizer. Jesus comes to be baptized in the same way as those who are waiting to be taught, those to whom John has called out- Repent! Be changed, be cleansed! And Jesus doesn’t need to do this.
It’s the limit too far, John cries out- NO!
And John is as right as he is righteous-
Jesus in our eyes does not need to be baptized- there is no sin from which he must be cleansed.
But in God’s eyes it is a divine necessity.
Because in order to fully immerse himself in our world as “God with us” there must be no edge, no limit, no person or place too far from God saving us fully.

Jesus shows the way by showing up at the edge with all the dirty, bruised, bent over, trampled, breaking “Crushed reeds” people. With all who ‘struggle to shine or even hold a spark in life” people. In the midst of people like us. And Jesus immerses himself completely in our existence and wears it.
When I was growing up down South we used to head to a swimming hole. On a hot day you need a swimmin’ hole. We’d head down the red clay road, through the weeds in the field, over the fence past the bull we needed to avoid to the cool water.
And when we came home we’d try to convince the adults that we didn’t need a bath that day because “we had already been in the water.”
But of course, as you know, we were covered with all the dust of red clay road we traveled, all the silt stirred up in our splashing and the field we walked through. We wore it all.
At the Jordan river, people had made their dusty trek, and they were dirty and splashing, and animals were trampling and the water was anything but pure. Mud oozing at the edges, silt rising.
Jesus immerses himself here.
In this place full of the dirt of creation’s existence. And I imagine that he rises up out of the water, he is dripping with the drops of the Jordan, clinging to him, full of all that dirt on his skin. He wears our existence.
But he’s also filled with the Holy Spirit on the inside.

And he carries both- as he heads into places of temptation, and the labors of ministry, to the place where he will wash the dirty feet of his followers and to the place where he’ll bear the crushing weight of the cross. And the place where it seems like the end has been reached.
But there too he will open up possibility in the new thing of resurrection declared by God.
We who share in baptism share in all of this.
Walking into the world- in places of temptation, labors of ministry. We carry the drops of the mark of the cross that declares God’s new life and we walk filled with the Holy Spirit
Even when we feel like crushed reeds, or dim wicks, covered with the weight and dirt of struggles, and surrounded by limits. When we are waiting for a word.
Jesus shows up and calls us to be immersed.
Because the people on the edge are waiting and hoping it will be a good word.
And we need to hear that they are at the edges because of other people’s limits.
It’s always a challenge.
People can get caught up in crying out frustrations, or shouting out  complaints about the world. Perhaps like John insisting upon what we are certain cannot be.Or like leaders in the gospel, certain about the step that is too far to take-that person is too distant or to broken to be our concern. The cost is too great; the energy too demanding.

Maybe this is when we should ask if we have considered lately what it takes to crush a reed or dim a wick.

We, this side of the cross see Isaiah’s prophecy as pointing to Christ the Servant, and it does, however,
it is not to be forgotten that the people in the time of Isaiah interpreted this prophecy as speaking to them- the people of Israel as it is defined in the Hebrew Scripture. That the servant is THEM as the community. If we open our horizon of possibility, the servant is both.
Tempting as it may be to think that the edge of whatever is right in front of us is the limit, perhaps a new thing Jesus declares even now is that what we see as the limit is God’s horizon of possibility.

Because we have been fully immersed in God’s vision for the world declared by Christ.
And we are empowered by the Spirit
To live as Martin Luther suggested. Even on his darkest days in the world, he could be sustained by declaring- “I’m baptized!”
It reminded him of grace and salvation,
and that the dirt of life is not permanent.
And it gave him strength to look for God’s work in the world and to declare it no matter what the world’s limits might suggest. It’s powerful!
In baptism God says of us too- you’re my chosen, my delight, the bearer of my Spirit, the bringer of justice. Don’t be discouraged. You are my servant.

May we live this new life-
to declare to all at the edges of existence,
A glorious word-
That in Christ, where others see limits,
And build barriers,
We see the horizon of possibility being revealed
That Christ is the only real power and truth in this world
Who has come for us all.